Presents for Public Servants

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

One of the central features of the State Comptroller’s latest report (April 29, 2001) was his investigation of gifts which had been given to public servants. Section 2a of the Public Service Law emphasizes that all gifts received by a public servant while in office belong exclusively to the state and not to the individual who received them. If the value of the gift is negligible he may keep it, but otherwise he must give it to the state via the office of the State Registrar. If he wishes to keep the gift he must request permission from a special committee which can authorize him to keep the presents.

Despite the simplicity of this law the Comptroller found that it has rarely been followed. In the 20 years since the establishment of the law, only 310 presents were reported to the State Registrar. Since 1999, when police investigated former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for allegedly absconding presents given to him during his tenure as Prime Minister, over 2500 presents were reported! Either people were ignorant of the law or chose to ignore its existence. One reason for the lack of compliance with the law was its failure to offer a definition of what constituted “negligible” value of a present, thereby allowing public servants to rationalize their acceptance of small presents. Thus the purpose of the law had been vitiated, since its goal was to educate public servants not to view presents as their personal property. Many famous public figures were embarrassed to find themselves named in the Comptroller’s report for failing to comply with this law.

Another possible goal of the law is to prevent bribery in the public sector. According to this even small gifts should qualify as bribes. Since time immemorial people have attempted to sway the hearts of the mighty and powerful with valuable gifts and trinkets. Yishayahu complains (1:23) of the “immoral princes, friends of thieves, they all love bribes and pursue payments.” It is important to distinguish bribery from the common practice of bringing gifts to kings and leaders to honor them as befits their status. In this respect it is understandable why some public servants viewed the presents as a legitimate recognition of their own merits and not simply as gifts to the state.

What does the Torah have to say about public figures receiving presents? In Parshat Korach we find an intriguing comment by Moshe when he complains to G-d about Datan and Aviram’s challenge to his authority :-

“Do not accept their offering. I did not take one of their donkeys, nor did I harm any of them.”

Moshe realized that Datan and Aviram were concerned with enjoying the fruits of power and did not care for the leadership itself. Behind their cynical attack lay a need for material wealth and prestige. Moshe therefore seems to be saying that a leader must not abuse his power by indiscriminately confiscating his constituent’s property, even if he is permitted to do so in his role as monarch. (see Rambam Hilchot Melachim chapter 4). Chazal explain the reference to a donkey:

“Even when I went from Midian to Egypt, and I brought my wife and children by donkey, I used my own donkey even though I could have used theirs”.

According to this interpretation, Moshe is emphasizing how he waived his right to use public property even when he was working solely for the national cause. However, a closer reading may reveal a different connotation behind Moshe’s words. Moshe uses the word “nasati” and not “lakachti” which is the normal word for “taking”. A search in the Bible reveals three sources where “mas’et” (root nasa) means a gift given as a tribute to an august person. (Bereshit 43:34; Yirmiyahu 40:5; Esther 2:18). Moshe is saying that he had not received from Datan and Aviram any gift which might justify their demands from him. Furthermore, “I did not harm them” by using their property and therefore they should not have any grievance towards me. In this way Moshe is demonstrating that their argument is not directed at him personally, since he does not owe them anything for previous service. They are simply looking for more power and influence and targeting Moshe to achieve these goals. Therefore G-d should not “accept their offering” for these motives.

Two important lessons emerge from this verse. 1) A leader should endeavor not to exploit public resources even when this is legally permissible. 2) A leader must beware of receiving any kind of gift, even when his status requires such gifts, since this can compromise his integrity and make him beholden to the donor. By acting strictly according to these rules, Moshe proved that he held the mettle of a true leader and not just an opportunist intent on utilizing power for his own benefit. Power and presents can both corrupt, and a leader must set an example of uncompromising honesty and fairness by avoiding even the smallest gift.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).