A Holy Inventory
In the ever-fertile imagination of the Rabbis there are no arid texts. The most prosaic can readily become the occasion for an insight of great consequence. By way of example, I will focus on a narrative fragment tucked away in the middle of the lists that make up the bulk of the final two parashot of Exodus. The lesson derived from it is one that has lost none of its moral force.
Midway through the building of the Tabernacle and the making of the priests’ garments, the Torah tells us that Moses stopped to take an inventory of the precious metals collected for both purposes: “These are the records (pekudei) 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 (not my Hebrew name, which is Yitzhak), son of Aaron the priest (Exodus 38:21).” There follows then a financial accounting of just how much gold, silver and copper the people had contributed and what was actually used in the construction. Remember, the Tabernacle was funded entirely by voluntary gifts which poured in with such gusto that Moses was compelled to end the campaign early (another biblical miracle! Exodus 36:5-7).
I doubt whether this inventory would attract our attention, except to ask skeptically how the Israelites came by such wealth. The Rabbis, however, noted the behavior of Moses. What prompted him to undertake an audit? God had not instructed him to do so. Viewed from the perspective of Moses, the inventory gave rise to some remarkable comments on the standards to which leaders should be held. Thus one midrash proclaims that “an individual is obligated to do right by others no less than by God (ha-makom ).” And the basis for this admonition is Moses, himself. Despite the fact that God speaks of him as ‘trusted throughout My household (Numbers 12:7),’ Moses sought to do right by others (i.e. the Israelites) because, when the work on the Tabernacle was over, he said to them:’These are the records of the Tabernacle (Torah Shlemah, vol. 23, p.55).’
In other words, the conduct of Moses implied a norm of action for future leaders, indeed, for every Jew. Our behavior should be beyond suspicion. Piety does not grant us the right to spurn public opinion. Who would have dared to suspect Moses of impropriety? And yet he went out of his way to invite scrutiny of his disposition of public funds. Authority anchored in the divine does not permit leadership by fiat.
A related midrash cites the prohibition against entering the temple chamber to deposit priestly taxes while wearing bulky clothing. In the event that you become wealthy, you should be sure not to arouse the suspicion that you may have lifted money from sacred coffers. To drive home this point, the midrash quotes the exquisitely apt verse, “And you shall be deemed guiltless before the Lord and before Israel (Numbers 32:22),” as well as the example of Moses (Shemot Rabba 51:2).
Yet a third midrash starts with the principle that in matters of public money, authority is never to be exercised by fewer than two people. This time, the example of Moses is cited to contradict the principle. Didn’t he alone preside over the funds raised for the Tabernacle? But this impression derives from a careless reading of the text. The verb is actually passive (a pual form of pakad ) and not active, “which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding,” suggesting that Moses had the inventory done for him by Ithamar. Hence, to avoid the slightest suspicion of personal gain, Moses also heeded the principle of shared authority in financial matters (Shemot Rabba 51:1).
Halakhic practice translated these cautionary sentiments into ramified legislation. The Talmud required that charity for the poor should always be solicited in pairs in accord with the ideal of shared authority and distributed by at least three administrators as if it were a civil matter where three judges must adjudicate. Moreover, the two solicitors are never to be out of each other’s sight. In the event that there are no poor at the moment, those who raised the donations may use those coins to make change for other people but may not make change for their own use. Finally, in counting what they collected, the administrators must always count one coin at a time (B.T. Baba Bathra 8b). Clearly, all of these strictures were prescribed to protect the integrity of the charitable system.
Still, the Talmud adds that the public ought not to demand of those who run this system an accounting of their disbursements. Without a measure of trust, no system will long endure (B.T. Baba Bathra 9a). Interestingly, R. Jacob ben Asher in his monumental fourteenth-century legal code, tightens the exemption. While it applies only to those administrators without blemish (ha-kesherim ), it is preferable for all to issue reports that “they may be deemed guiltless before the Lord and before Israel.” Noting the restriction in his gloss, R. Joel Sirkes two centuries later, observes that R. Jacob was most likely moved to depart from the Talmud by the example of Moses in the midrash (Arba’ah Turim, Yoreh Deah, 257).
Though tempted, I shall not close on the obvious: that a pretense of piety is all too often accompanied by an absence of integrity. Corruption is not limited to sinners. Rather, I wish to raise one final midrash that points to the character of the righteous. It, too, deals with a prosaic detail of Tabernacle construction rendered luminous by the Rabbis. In their deep reading, they noticed that the ark for the Tablets made of acacia wood was to be covered with pure gold both inside and outside (Exodus 25:11). In the symmetry they saw a metaphor of great profundity: “‘From it we may learn,’ said Rava, ‘that any student of Torah whose inner and outer lives are not in sync is not a student of Torah.'” (B.T. Yoma 72b). Both ark and scholar serve as bearers of God’s word. Emblematic of their holiness is the symmetry between their internal and external states. Rava’s comment puts a premium on integrity. When that is lost, piety becomes but a pretext for power.