October 17, 2021 |

Financial Transparency

In the movie "Good Will Hunting", the psychiatrist played by Robin Williams succeeds in getting through to Matt Damon's character after everyone else has tried and failed. He manages to bring out the real person rather than just the brashly arrogant and smart polymath who keeps the rest of the world at arm's length. The reason why - articulated by the good doctor even before their first session - is that no therapy can begin without trust. Real self-awareness and self-discovery is only possible when the doctor and the patient trust each other. And so he sets out to establish trust with the troubled young man by being a real person instead of a "shrink", displaying anger, sharing intimate details of his own life, and even accepting influence in his own life from his patient. Whether or not this fictionalized portrayal of successful counseling is realistic or desirable for real-life psychiatrists and counselors I leave to the experts. But I recognize the character type and it is one that I desire for myself and for the Jewish people. It is a character type originally portrayed by Moshe Rabbenu (Moses, our teacher), the "ish emunot", the trustworthy man, or man [worthy] of faith. (Sh'mot Rabba 51:1)

Moshe is the quintessential reliable person. He is both trusted by God, who says "...my servant Moshe, in all My house, he is the trustworthy one (ne'eman)" and by the Jewish people, who he took out of Egypt, through the split sea and to Sinai. He establishes at every turn that he cares more for others than for himself and he extends himself in unbelievable ways to care for the Israelites. Yet, he is also a real person - he has a wife and children of his own, he makes the occasional mistake and has moments of self-doubt and anger. No one can doubt that everything Moshe has done for his people - from the very first day he struck down an Egyptian beating a Hebrew a slave to going back up Mount Sinai to convince God to forgive them for the Golden Calf - establishes him as an ish emunot, a trustworthy person, a man of faith.

But it is very hard to trust, both then and now. Moshe asked the people to take extraordinary leaps of faith in trusting him: walking into the howling wilderness of the Sinai, accepting a revolutionary way of life brought down from Heaven. There were times when it seemed like it wouldn't work. Sometimes, they had no water, or aggressive armies were bearing down on them with swords and chariots, or it seemed like they could not obey all of God's laws. Sometimes, it seemed like they would just never get out of the desert. Only unbelievable patience and perseverance helped them make it. But at least they had Moshe.

In our day, we have trusted politicians and leaders who have toppled off their pedestals. We have doubts about whether we are living our lives the right way and whether or not following the Torah as we understand it will make us happy. We wonder whether or not we will ever understand what God wants from us. We are sticking our necks out to embrace a set of values and behaviors that much of the rest of the world thinks is weird, backward, or worse[1]. It's not that we really think they're right, but with all the talking heads out there, who CAN we trust? Who is our ish emunot?

I think it is instructive to notice that Moshe himself underwent a lot of criticism and was doubted frequently by the Israelites, despite the clear evidence that he had divine stature as a prophet and was God's chosen representative. At various times, he had to contend with rebellions, murmuring in tents and lots of groaning and chest-thumping about how he was leading the people astray. There were even times when they wanted to elect a new chief and go back to Egypt! It just shows that you can't always trust what "the people" want (we don't always know what's good for us) and that doubt and mistrust exist everywhere. Perhaps rather than moaning ourselves about how our generation has no Moshe (which, I have to admit, would be nice) we can learn something from how Moshe himself handled these doubters.

After the Golden Calf incident, Moshe moved his tent outside the Israelite camp. In Sh'mot (Exodus) 33:8, the Torah says: "And when Moshe went out to the tent, all the people got up and stood erect in their own tent doorways[2] and they watched Moshe until he went into his tent." Immediately after this, God's presence settled upon Moshe's tent and it was there (pre-Tabernacle) that He communicated with Moshe. The Talmud[3] brings two interpretations of what was going on in the people's minds when they watched Moshe make his way to his tent. One opinion is that it was to Moshe's credit. As they stood in awe and respect, they said "Happy is the one who gave birth to him!" a compliment to both him and his mom. The other opinion, though, is that they were being profoundly cynical. They whispered to each other: "Look how fat his neck and face are. He is eating and drinking with our money!" In other words, they literally accused Moshe of padding his pocket with the people's tzedaka money.

Though we as a people have a high tolerance for self-criticism, and the Torah and commentators are surely not above calling the people out when they sin or act inappropriately, this criticism seems to really have gotten under their skin. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th c. France) omits the negative interpretation, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Berlin, 19th c. Europe) tries to deny it and the Gemara itself, though it mentions it obliquely, seems hesitant to even say it out loud[4]. I can see why this behavior on the part of our people is deeply embarrassing to us[5]. Here we have Moshe, who has just convinced God NOT to destroy the Jewish people and who is working 24-7 to craft a future for his people -- and standing in their doorways, some total jerks are taking potshots that Moshe is spending too much money on lunch! Perhaps we could say that there were some unfortunate malcontents who never learn and are not indicative of how we would really feel. If we had been there, we would have been admiring Moshe and saying the good things. However, can we really say that? We, who live in a society where our political leaders and spiritual figures are constantly maligned in public (sometimes, but only sometimes, for good reasons) and where character assassination online, in the press and in courtrooms has been honed to a high art? Cynicism is a seductive whisper that is often unable to distinguish good from bad.

According to the midrash (Tanchuma, Pekudei 7), Moshe becomes aware of these murmured criticisms. But rather than getting angry, denouncing them or protesting his own innocence, he acts with virtue and dignity. He pro-actively declares that the financial statements from the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) will be made publicly available. There will be complete transparency of all donations and costs. How anyone could really have for one second believed that Moshe would take kickbacks while building the house of God is beyond me. But it's comforting to know that he personally accounted (with some oversight from a few others, such as Itamar) for every shekel collected and spent.

The midrash goes on to describe a terrifying moment for Moshe. As he prepares the accounting, he finds that he has a record of 1,775 silver shekels being donated but no record or memory of how they were spent. He begins to tremble. Now, he worries, the people will say (and have a case to say) that I have stolen from them! The whole edifice of trust and trustworthiness will crumble, even though he is quite sure he did nothing wrong. At that moment, God reveals to him what he had forgotten. He needed exactly 1,775 shekels worth of silver to create the silver hooks (vavim ha-amudim) upon which the curtains of the Tabernacle were hung. The hooks were hidden behind the curtains and he had forgotten about them. With relief, the Torah writes "and the 1,775 were used for hooks for the beams, their heads covered in silver and plated." (Sh'mot 38:28)

Moshe volunteers a public accounting to show that he is honest and the finances of the mishkan untainted. But he does it not only for the malcontents and critics, but also for all the people, to give them pride and confidence in what they have built. And he does it also for himself, so that he can be sure that his own accounting is error-free. It is only after this nitty-gritty, time-consuming, banal process of counting is completed that the we move to the sublime and God's presence - in the very last verses of Exodus - settles down upon the mishkan and comes to rest within the Israelite camp. Our financial integrity is a pre-requisite for God's presence to rest within us. More than that, being an ish emunot and having leaders who are anashim emunot is as much an invitation to spirituality as any other 'religious' activity we engage in[6]. Shabbat shalom!

[1] Of course, there are also some who respect it and us, which is worth remembering.
[2] This is the source that one must stand when their father or teacher walks by or comes into the room.
[3] In both Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim 3:1and Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 33b.
[4] In Kiddushin, it refers to the negative interpretation by saying "ki'd'ita", literally "as it was stated" even though the Gemara never mentions it. It's like saying "as is well-known" to imply what you don't want to say out loud.
[5] Also, possibly, they may have been reluctant to say negative things about Moshe. I am . I would never want to be misunderstood ever as "trashing" Mishe, God forbid.
[6] Of course, one does not exclude the other; we should certainly do "religious" activities and also be trustworthy in our other interpersonal dealings.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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