Does sin have a payoff? Is it possible to bribe G-d?
This weeks parsha is mostly a recount of what happened during the exodus journey, mostly focusing on how the people rebelled and did not ascend to the promised land when they were first commanded to. G-d renews His call at that time for them to take the land and posses it, being followed in the next parsha by harsh commands on how to settle it. But before we get there Moses explains who G-d is that we should obey Him:
“For Hashem your G-d
He is the G-d of gods
the Lord of lords
the great G-d,
[and] awesome [One];
who does not show favoritism
nor does He take a bribe.”
| Ki Hashem Eloheichem
| hu Elohei haElohim
| v’Adonai ha-adonim
| haEl hagadol
| asher lo yisa panim
| v’lo yikach shochad
We see our G-d revealed as the most amazing and sublime G-d, above all forces and authorities in the universe. This first description shows His authority, strength and transcendence.
But then it is followed up by a more approachable description of G-d, one that is very noble and considerate. The parsha continues:
“He executes justice
for the orphan and the widow;
and loves the stranger
in giving him food and clothing.”
| Oseh mishpat
| yatom v’almanah;
| v’ohev ger
| lateit lo lechem v’simlach
G-d is presented as active in the world, involved. Not just approachable, but close to the most lowly of people. He is the ultimate power, who chooses to use that authority in order to enact righteous judgment for people in need. We also recognize that His commands (mitzvot) are for us to do likewise; to provide for and do justice for the needy.
If you were to ask yourself why G-d would be so concerned with the needs of the poor and destitute, Moses’ reason is provided as “because He doesn’t show favoritism.” All people, including the stranger – the ger, the immigrant or the convert – His concern is for them as much as any other person. He cares for all people, even those most often ignored; the orphan and the widow.
I find the description of G-d in this parsha to be both beautiful and inspiring. The transcendence of the G-d of all creation is tempered by a description of a tenderly eminent G-d. Our G-d is the G-d of justice and all glory.
Though if we look at the first part of the description we will see there is one point about this high character of our G-d that looks at bit odd at first, if we consider it. If G-d is so superior, surpassing human limitations and weaknesses; how does it says of Him, “v’lo yikach shochad / and He doesn’t accept bribes,”?
The perplexity is that if we consider G-d, He isn’t just morally above accepting a monetary bribe, but He is also incorporeal and therefore unable to engage in accepting bribery. Besides, He is the maker of all the universe. There is nothing in the entire world that does not belong to Him, so what can we bribe Him with?
The Sifrei (a rabbinic commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy) gives us one of the most interesting statements to consider: “The merits a person earns are never exchanged for transgressions, and transgressions are never exchanged for merits.” (Sifrei of Deuteronomy 33:6)
Our Sages come to the conclusion that bribery is merely an exchange in justice for something else of value. And the only thing that G-d really values is how we act in merit of His Torah and His charge for justice.
Our great rabbis are not saying much about the nature of G-d here, but a lot about us as people. Sometimes in life we desire something from G-d that we don’ necessarily deserve, so we begin to make wild vows and oaths to do great mitzvot if G-d will just change the situation regarding something. That too is bribery.
But the Sifrei instead focuses on an even more vile type of bribery yet that some people might have in mind. Of course we can’t bribe G-d with money, that does not carry on into the next world. The only thing that does is our good deeds, the merit we accumulate in doing mitzvot. Some people believe because they have done a lot of good deeds in their life they have enough stored up to exchange for an aveirah – a sin, a moral failure, a crime or offense. As far as they see it, when they put their deeds of mixed merit, both good and bad, on the line to be weighed they believe the scales will tilt in their favor. As far as they figure, they can “afford” to slip up morally this time.
This is a wrong way of looking at life and the nature of morality. So now here Moses is making a statement against such a mentality, our good deeds cannot be used to pay off G-d in order to turn a blind eye towards an aveirah. Each deed we do in life stands on its own. Doing mitvot merits us rewards and benefit, and doing an aveirah brings judgment upon us. For each and every deed we will get our reward or punishment for it, but one deed does not cancel out another.
Another way of looking at this lesson is, we cannot look at our good deeds as patches on the moral fabric of our lives. Each deed we do is another stitch and weave in to the fabric our existence. Doing an aveirah doesn’t just leave us tattered, it warps the shape of our existence and is not so easily removed. This is why our sages warn us:
“Ben Azzai said: Run to perform even a ‘minor’ mitzvah, and flee from sin; for one mitzvah results in another mitzvah, and an aveirah results in another aveirah.”
הוי רץ למצווה קלה כבחמורה ובורח מן העבירה, שמצווה גוררת מצווה ועבירה גוררת עבירה ששכר מצווה מצווה ושכר עבירה עבירה.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:2