Giving a good account
Pekudei — Exodus 38:21-40:38
After five weeks, we finally come to the end of the account of the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. We have read about the instructions for making the Mishkan and the objects to be used in it, and about how these instructions were carried out. This week, in parshat Pekudei, we read about the project’s completion, how the Mishkan was assembled and its contents arranged, and, finally, about how God’s presence filled the Mishkan to guide the Israelites on their journey.
But our parsha begins with an accounting of the materials used in building the Mishkan — everything that was collected from the people’s donations and what it was used for. The Torah says, “These are the records of the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding — the work of the Levites under the direction of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest.”
What’s interesting is that Moses apparently did this on his own; it wasn’t commanded by God. Moses commissioned an independent audit to be done by the kohanim and Levi’im to show that he had properly and prudently used the donations the people had made. But why did Moses feel the need to do this? After all, if they couldn’t trust Moses, whom could they trust?
Moreover, as the Shulhan Aruch (Yorah Deah 257b) tells us, “We do not ask for an accounting from treasurers of religious charitable trusts, as they are presumed to do their work honestly.”
But, our rabbis tell us, even though Moses was not required to give an accounting of the donations for the Mishkan, he did it to teach a lesson to future generations. Namely, even when it is not required, it’s a good thing for those who are in charge of public funds to go beyond the letter of the law to show they have carried out their duties with scrupulous honesty and selflessness.
It seems to be human nature to be suspicious of those in positions of power. The midrash Tanhuma tells us, “Why then did he give an accounting? Because he heard the scoffers of the generation talk behind his back, as is said, ‘Whenever Moses went out…all the people would…gaze after Moses.’ (Shemot 33:8) And what were they saying? Eying him with contempt from behind, one would say to the other: Look at his [beefy] neck! Look as his [fat] thighs! He stuffs himself with what belongs to us and guzzles what is ours. And the other would reply: ‘Stupid! A man appointed over the work of the Tabernacle, over talents of silver and talents of gold whose weight and number are too great to measure — what do you expect? That he would not enrich himself?’ When Moses heard this talk, he said: ‘As you live, when the work of the Tabernacle is finished, I will give you an accounting.’”
Today, it’s a common belief that elected officials, heads of corporations, even leaders of charitable organizations will use their positions for personal benefit if they believe they can get away with it. After all, hardly a week goes by without at least one news story about corruption in high places.
And so people lose faith in the system — why not cheat on your taxes or pad your expense account, why bother to donate to charity if the people running the system are crooks? For society to function as it should, people need to believe that they aren’t being cheated or used. They need to know that the game isn’t rigged.
Moses asked for an audit and provided the people with an accounting to teach us that when you hold a position of power or leadership, when you are charged with overseeing the needs of the community, when you are a teacher, a coach, a parent trying to be a role model, not only must you do your job with integrity, you must also let the community know that their trust in you is not misplaced.