A Public Accounting
"You got your W2?" "Check!" "1099?" "Check!" "Wisconsin taxes? Property taxes?" "Check. Check." So went the conversation between my father-in-law, who is our accountant, and me last Sunday afternoon as we prepared my family's income taxes for the year 2000. I kept my attention, although my inclination was to let it all slip by, for the numbers and rules were starting to confuse me. And yet my father-in-law's advice stayed with me. "You have GOT to keep good records. And you must know where everything goes. It has to add up."
And what I learned on Sunday in terms of numbers is no different than what we learn this week in Torah. That a person must be accountable for his job, his money and his actions. Such was the case with Moshe Rabbenu with our teacher, Moses.
Our Torah Text goes:
These are the accounts of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses' bidding the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why does Moses have to give a detailed accounting of the Tabernacle to the Israelites? Isn't it enough that Moses' instructions came from God?
2. Why did Moses involve other people in the accounting? Couldn't he have done it all himself?
There is a discussion (the midrash,) in Exodus Rabbah 51:2 about Moses' responsibility as treasurer to the Israelite people. In it our rabbis taught: "One who entered the Temple treasury (a place of public funds) to take out money should not enter wearing clothing with pockets or with shoes, for if he should become rich, they will say, 'He has become rich from the Temple Treasury.' A man needs to be free from suspicion among his fellows, just as he is morally clean before God, as it says, 'You shall be clean before God and before Israel.'" (Numbers 32:22)
According to the midrash, it appears that not even Moses was above suspicion. Again in Exodus Rabbah (51:6) we read: "Why did Moses give the Israelites a detailed accounting of the expenditures? And why did Moses say to the Israelites, 'Come let us discuss the Tabernacle and examine its expenditure?'... It was because Moses overheard some scoffers speaking behind his back... They used to gossip, 'See how fat this son of Amram (Moses) has become.' And his friend would reply, 'What! Do you expect a man in charge of the construction of the Tabernacle not to be rich?!' When Moses heard all this he said, 'By your lives, as soon as the Tabernacle is completed I will give you a full accounting of everything.' (And as soon as it was finished) he said to them 'Come and let us do the accounting.' This is why it says, "These are the accounts of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:21)."
Your Midrash Navigator
1. Why does Midrash say that a temple treasurer (or one who handles money) should not wear pockets?
2. How does this statement relate to Moses' situation regarding the Tabernacle?
3. How does the second midrash help us understand the opening verse: "These are the accounts of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:21)?"
4. How can you relate these stories to our own accountability as citizens? As leaders? As honest human beings?
From these midrashim we can see that we should not only be financially responsible, but appear to be financially responsible. Great leaders, like a responsible treasurer, should be able to be free of suspicion of bribes or other rewards they may have received as a result of their jobs. And sometimes that means taking extra precautions to ensure that we do not appear to be benefiting in an unfair way from our job or a position of leadership. Inherent in this interpretation is the idea that if we wear pockets, we may be tempted to use them, taking a little out from the account, and putting a little in forourselves. It is a fence around the law, preventing us not only from actingunlawfully, but from appearing to act unlawfully.
Here we see that in Exodus Rabbah "Pekude," translated as"accounts" is understood to mean much more than an accounting of Temple vessels or community taxes. "Pekude" is about moral accountability. The story of Moses' audit provides us with the opportunity to consider our own audit. In a narrow sense, it comforts me to make this connection as I am slaving away at my taxes to recognize that this Torah portion is particularly timely, for each of us is responsible for our own accounting this time of year. And in a wider sense I realize that we are not only fiscally accountable, but morally accountable, too. As members of a community, it is our responsibility to be accountable for our actions. No one is above scrutiny. Not the president, not a leader in the community, and not even you or me. As Jews we learn that each of us must periodically undergo a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul. We do this each year at the High Holy Days, and we can do it periodically throughout the year as well.
When given the opportunity, people begin to doubt. Just last week in Torah we read that while waiting for Moses to come down the mountain, the Israelite people began to doubt he would ever return. (And Jewish tradition says Moses was only one day late returning!) Perhaps if Moses had communicated better with the Israelite people, they would not have doubted his trustworthiness upon his return. Or perhaps if Moses had watched his time better up on the mountain, it would have appeared to the people that he felt responsibility to them. It is sometimes difficult to remain accountable for our actions. But it is necessary.
As so many of us scurry around to finish our income taxes these next few weeks, let us remember to wear clothes without pockets. And let us remember to act accountable and to be accountable for our actions and our finances. May April 15 pass speedily and responsibly for us all.
Prepared by Rabbi Andrea Lerner, Midwest Director of Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, Hillel at University of Wisconsin, Madison .