Giving A Good Account (Edited Transcript)
Corruption is one of the big issues in society today. And it’s an issue Parshat Pikudei deals with head on.
The parsha begins: “These are the accounts of the Mishkan which were accounted through the instruction of Moshe.” We know that after G-d issued the instructions for building the Mishkan, Moshe embarked on an extensive fundraising campaign – the first in recorded Jewish history. The funds required to assemble the Mishkan were considerable – gold, silver, bronze and all kinds of valuable materials were needed. Yet Moshe’s campaign was enormously successful, to the point where people had to be actively told to stop bringing their donations.
Parshat Pikudei goes on to record Moshe’s detailed account of all the funds that he collected – an itemised register of all the various materials that were donated, their quantities, and how they were used in the construction of the Mishkan. The Midrash on this verse describes Moshe as “a man of great faithfulness, full of blessing”. Citing the phrase “which were accounted at Moshe’s command” – which is in the passive – the Midrash goes on to describe how rather than handling the accounts by himself, Moshe brought in other people to oversee the accounting process so that it could be carried out in the most independent, way possible.
What’s really striking here is that Moshe was the greatest leader in Jewish history. A person of unimpeachable integrity and unimaginable moral grandeur. As it says in the Torah itself, “Never again did there arise among the Jewish people a prophet like Moshe.” If you can’t trust Moshe, who in the world can you trust? And yet not only did he supply a full account for everything that he collected – in the interests of complete transparency and accountability, he brought others in to verify that account.
In the eyes of G-d and man
In doing so, Moshe acted in accordance with the verse in Bamidbar: “You shall be clean before G-d and before the Jewish people.” For it is not only important to do that which is right and proper in the eyes of G-d, it is important that it is right and proper in the eyes of society, too. People need to be able see for themselves where their money is going, and and that it is being spent in a responsible and ethical fashion.
There’s a fascinating law brought in Parshat Shekalim concerning the half-shekel coin everyone was obligated to dedicate to the Mishkan, and later brought once a year to fund the running of the Beit Hamikdash, the holy Temple. Citing this same verse, “You shall be clean before G-d and before the Jewish people”, the Mishnah rules that the Kohanim (priests) who used to collect and transport the coins were not allowed to have clothes with pockets or to even wear shoes – lest someone accuse them of pocketing the coins or slipping them into their shoes. It’s not only important that the right thing be done; it must be seen to be done.
There are in fact a number of measures put in place by the halachah to prevent corruption. For example, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 257), rules that when money is collected via a public charity campaign, an account has to be given for the amount that was collected and how it was spent. The Shulchan Aruch also sipulates that fundraising for a charitable cause should be done in pairs, each person acting as a check on the other, and allaying any potential suspicion among the public. A third ruling states that a charity collector walking in the street who finds money on the ground, while technically entitled to keep the, may not put it in his pocket, lest others think he is taking it from charity; instead he needs to deposit the money in a charity fund, and only later withdraw it (should he wish to do so), and after a proper account has been given for it.
Counting our blessings, making our blessings count
The misappropriation of funds from the public coffers is a serious crime. We are talking about taking money that was donated in order to advance the welfare of society, to serve the greater good, to uplift the lives of others, and diverting that for one’s private, personal gain.
But the Torah principles governing the misappropriation of resources don’t only apply to those involved in public service. There are lessons here that are relevant to everyone of us in our personal lives. Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) says that just as Moshe had to given an account to the people for how the money was spent, so too does each of us have to give an account to Hashem for all of the blessings He gives us.
We all enjoy different blessings. Whether it’s health, material resources, loving families, a roof over our heads, unique talents and abilities, or even simply the gift of time – of life itself. The question is, what do we do with these gifts G-d has given us? Do we use them to serve our own ends, to seek personal gratification and earthly pleasures? Or do we use them as G-d intended – to fulfill His commandments, help others, make the world a better place?
When we give an account before G-d for our blessings, what do our ledgers look like? Are we using the time that he gave us to, for example, daven and learn Torah? Are we using the money that He gave us to give charity? Are we using the time and energy that he gave us to do acts of kindness? If we are just using our G-d-given blessings for our own self-gratification then that’s actually a form of corruption – we are misappropriating resources; we are failing to use them for the purpose they were given to us.
We see that corruption is not merely something that happens at a government or organisational level. As individuals, as difficult as it is, we need to look inwards. Are we, indeed, corrupt ourselves? And if we are, how do we turn things around? How do we start ensuring those rich resources we’ve been blessed with are put towards their intended use?
What this really means is living life in accordance with two beautiful Hebrew words – l’Shem Shamyaim, “for the sake of Heaven”. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 236) mentions how everything we do should be guided by this ideal: we should eat in order to have the energy to do good deeds; sleep in order to refresh our minds and bodies so that we are able to go out and earn an honest living, support our families, pay for a Jewish education for our children, and give charity; use our G-d-given mental faculties for learning Torah, and our G-d-given soul for pouring out our hearts in prayer.
A virtuous circle
If we live l’Shem Shamyaim, we will bring untold blessings into our lives. One of the few areas – perhaps the only area – in which we are allowed to test G-d is charity. There is a G-d-given guarantee that whatever we give to charity (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 247:4) will be returned to us with added blessing. As the verse in Malachi says: “…Test Me please with this, says the Master of Hosts, [see] if I do not open up the storehouses of heaven, and empty out [for you] a blessing until you have more than enough”.
Why is it that we get back what we give and more? Rav Shimon Shkop (1860-1939) has an interesting explanation. He says the reason G-d gave us the money in the first place was so that we would use it to help the poor, support Torah learning institutions, advance public welfare, etc. (of course, we don’t give it all away; the amount stipulated by our Sages is between ten and twenty percent of disposable income). So if we use the money for the purpose for which it was given, then of course G-d is going to give us more. In a sense, G-d is investing in us. If you invest money in an enterprise and it gives you a good return, then you are going to continue to invest. In this case, our lives are the enterprise, and the returns are the mitzvot we perform with G-d’s investment capital. It stands to reason that if our returns are good, G-d will continue showering us with blessings.
Rav Shimon Shkop says this principle applies not just to charity. If all of the wonderful things we’ve been blessed with – our mind, our family, our talents, our physical energy – are dedicated to doing mitzvot, serving others, and making the world a better place, then our blessings will only multiply because we are using them for the purpose for which they were given to us by G-d.
This idea can be traced back to the Midrash quoted above, describing Moshe as “a man of great faithfulness, full of blessing”, which itself is based on a verse from Proverbs, “A faithful person will abound with blessings”. Ultimately, we see that living a live of sanctity, and dedicating ourselves to the greater good, is not just the right thing to do – it’s also a source of tremendous blessing.