Ancient Accounting Practices
By Stuart Weinblatt
Senior rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek
Unlike most of my sermons I am not going to refer to the headlines or what is happening in the news or in our lives. No references to financial markets, bailouts or the problems at AIG.
The Book of Exodus concludes with a listing, an inventory of all that went into the building of the Mishkan. This week's reading presents no narrative, no lofty call to embrace noble ideals or inspiring story line, just a listing of the building materials collected by Moses from the people used to construct the Tabernacle, the portable place of worship used in the Wilderness.
The rabbis ask about this esoteric reading: Why should Moses have to give an accounting of the use of all of the construction materials? Our sages suggest it was meant to serve as a warning to those who seek public office as well as to those who collect or manage money of the community. We call that accountability, responsibility, and transparency. Whoops, a few terms from current day parlance snuck in.
One of my favorite stories from the midrash goes as follows:
"When Moses came to the Sanctuary the people looked after him and watched him until he went into the Tent. And then one would say to another, "See how fat is his neck. Look at how fat his thighs have become."
It is almost as if the description is from a tv show like "Entertainment Tonight", implying that he is getting fat off the largesse of the people, that he is misusing or misappropriating the funds contributed by the public for himself.
The midrash continues:
"The son of Amram eats and drinks at our expense. Someone else said, 'What would you expect? A person who controls the work of the Mishkan appoints his nephew as the paymaster and his great nephew Betzalel as the contractor. Is it a surprise that he should become wealthy?!'"
Moses happened to overhear what was being said about him, and to put an end to the idle gossip he sought to remove any possible pretext for suspicion that he had benefited from ill gotten gain. He rendered an accounting of every item that was donated and how each was used.
Moses could have easily used his position for personal gain. He could have felt entitled to enjoy some personal benefits, extra compensation, or bonus payment for his work. He could have rationalized that he deserved some perks of office after all he did for the people and how hard he had worked. Yet one commentary quotes him as saying, "During the wanderings in the desert I never asked anyone to carry my goods for me in their hands or on their donkeys. I carried my own belongings, I loaded my own donkeys and I unloaded them."
Similarly, the prophet Samuel had an equally impeccable reputation. He said, "When I went to ask forgiveness for Israel or when I was sent to anoint a king, I took my own sacrificial animals. When I had to perform my judicial functions I did not follow the common practice and force Israel to come to me, but rather at my own expense I wandered from place to place to grant judgment."
Samuel and Moses serve as exemplary models of what it means to serve the public and how one must be careful to insure that there be no mismanagement of public funds. Whoops, I almost let slip another contemporary reference.
Moses' example ultimately became the basis for the behavior and ethical code of civil servants and trustees of public funds of the Jewish communities for centuries. Based on Moses' model, Jewish law mandated that public funds had to be collected by at least two trustees. The Laws of Tzedekah states that, "The overseers of the charity funds must keep each other constantly in view...If the trustees have to change the charity funds for another currency, or one denomination for another, they must do so through another person to avoid suspicion that they benefit from the transaction..."
The Talmud tells us that in the time of the Temple, the women of the family that sold incense for use in the Temple rituals did not wear any perfume so that no one could suspect them of taking from what was supposed to be used in the Temple for their own benefit. For the same reason, the priest who collected the public donations entered the deposit area of the Temple barefoot and wearing a garment that had no sleeves or pockets.
Biblical scholar Meir Tamari who was the chief economist in the bank of Israel writes, "Halakhah provides the legal framework for the protection of public funds against waste and fraud, but also for the implementation of an equitable fiscal system. Such a framework is of itself, however, insufficient to effectively prevent corruption. In addition, this requires spiritual and cultural norms that not only reject corruption but also create a social atmosphere which minimizes even the very appearance of unethical behavior."
But as I said at the outset, today's reading and talk is just about ancient times. Too bad it doesn't hold any lessons for us today or for any of our public servants or those who administer public funds.
Stuart Weinblatt is senior rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md.
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