A Life of Self-Restraint
Midrash is the art of keeping an ancient sacred text alive. The Rabbis were masters of drawing water from stone, of transforming the most mundane passages of Torah into luminous nuggets of spirituality. Our parashah offers a provocative example of their creative touch.
It opens unexcitingly with an inventory of the metals used in the construction of the Tabernacle, more specifically with a financial statement of their worth. Moses felt obliged to state for the record the amount of gold, silver and copper that went into the artifacts of the sanctuary. In the first verse we are told: “These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding…” (38:21). The sums are vast. With the weight of a talent equal to 3000 shekels, Moses deployed 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold, 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver and 70 talents and 2,400 shekels of copper in the Tabernacle. It should be noted that these quantities were voluntarily given by the public in response to a fundraising campaign. Stirred by the prospect of an ongoing presence of God in their midst, the Israelites had shared of their wealth unstintingly, more than was actually needed (36:4-7).
A midrash accentuated what was implicit in the narrative. In rendering an account to his donors, Moses had set an example for future leaders. Despite his closeness to God, Who said of him that “he is trusted (ne’eman) throughout My household” (Numbers 12:7), Moses chose to give an accounting of the funds collected to his flock. It is for this reason that the verse in Proverbs, “A dependable (emunot – same root as above) man will receive many blessings” (28:20) describes Moses to a tee. Irrespective of his power, he subjected himself to the norms of good governance. His behavior proved to be a blessing because it exemplified that confidence in a leader requires transparency.
A related midrash made the same point in rabbinic terms. According to the Mishnah, “No office for communal financial matters is to be instituted with less than two officers” (Shekalim 5:2). Yet it is apparent throughout the Torah that Moses governed alone. Still to be above reproach, Moses complied with rabbinic practice. He invited Aaron’s son Ithamar to perform the audit (38:21). In regard to public funds, there must not be an iota of suspicion about misappropriation. Thus when a priest in the Temple would withdraw money to pay for the daily communal sacrifices from the room in which it was held, he always entered in a garment without cuffs or pockets. Religious leaders administering public funds ought to be unblemished in the eyes of their constituents as well as in the eyes of God, which is why the Torah explicitly states, “You shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22) (Shemot Raba 51:1-2).
Accountability, then, restricts malfeasance, an ancient insight that has lost none of its relevance. The pervasive distrust of corporate America, which aggravates the recession we can’t seem to shake, is surely a consequence of the reckless abandonment of honest accountability by all too many business titans in the nineties. Driven by the pressure of quarterly earnings and the temptation of staggering wealth, chief executives of public companies reached for unprecedented levels of compensation, rushed into conflicts of interest and wreaked havoc with accounting procedures. Rarely have so few done such harm to the reputation of their peers or the savings of the small investor.
Judaism is nothing if not a set of insistent reminders that we humans are accountable for our actions. Free will is not a gift to be abused. The Talmud posits that the first question to be put to us in the world-to-come will bear on our most basic need – to earn a living: “Did you conduct your business affairs in a trustworthy manner?” (BT Shabbat 31a) Each year during the Days of Awe we confront ourselves in an agonizing appraisal. Denial of our failings is difficult for everything in the ledger is recorded in our own hand. The sins for which we seek forgiveness are those we have committed against our neighbors near and far. If granted a reprieve, we avow to do better in the year ahead. Indeed, every day of the year we rededicate ourselves in our morning prayers to fear God wherever we might be so that our speech be always marked by integrity and truthfulness. Faith works to counter our greed.
The ethos of Scripture aims for the same balance. Power needs to be checked. Hence the kings of ancient Israel were never absolute monarchs. The Torah forbade them to amass wives, horses or wealth. Not only were they required to copy for themselves God’s teaching, but the text was to be their constant companion for daily study (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The institution of the prophet existed to curb royal power. When David had Uriah the Hittite killed so that he might cover up his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, it was the prophet Nathan who dared to rebuke him to his face (II Samuel 11-12). Likewise, the prophet Elijah confronted Ahab, the mighty king of northern Israel, after he had confiscated the vineyard of Naboth, murdered by Jezebel in a kangaroo court. “Would you murder and also take possession?” (I Kings 21:19), words that would reverberate through the ages as a warning to tyrants of all stripes.
The corporate excesses of the nineties also fly in the face of the ideal envisioned by Ben Zoma, a second-century rabbinic sage who died young. His portrait turns on paradox. The answer to each question is counterintuitive.
Who are the wise? Those who learn from everyone.
Who are the strong? Those who conquer their own impulses.
Who are rich? Those who find contentment in their lot.
Who are esteemed? Those who esteem others.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1).
In sum, by living a life of self-restraint we may reach a state of equilibrium and harmony in which the needs of the soul take precedence over the appetites of the body.