Do Rabbis Love Money?
The Day Moses Became a Bookkeeper
Dedicated to Rabbi Yisroel and Chana Sirota
in honor of their wedding anniversary
By their loving children David and Eda Schottenstein
Who Tells Me Anything?
A woman called a local hospital. "Hello," she said. "I'd like to talk with the person who gives the information regarding your patients. I'd like to find out if the patient is getting better, doing as expected or getting worse."
The voice on the other end of the line said, "What is the patient's name and room number?"
"Sarah Cohen in Room 302," the woman answered.
"I will connect you with the nursing station."
"3-A Nursing Station. How can I help you?"
"I would like to know the condition of Sarah Cohen in Room 302."
"Just a moment, let me look at her records. Oh, yes. Mrs. Cohen is doing very well. In fact, she's had two full meals, her blood pressure is fine, her blood work just came back as normal, she's going to be taken off the heart monitor in a couple of hours and, if she continues this improvement, Dr. Weiss is going to send her home Tuesday at noon."
"Thank G-d!" the woman said. "That's wonderful! Oh! That's fantastic, what wonderful news!"
The nurse said, "From your enthusiasm, I take it you must be a family member or a very close friend!"
"Not exactly," the woman said. "I'm actually the patient herself; I’m Sarah Cohen in 302! Nobody here tells me anything."
The Long Journey
The drama was almost complete. The people exiled in a foreign country for more than two centuries, and for much of that time in unbearable conditions, experienced a miraculous liberation through direct and manifested intervention by the Creator. At Mt. Sinai, G-d and Israel enter into a mutual covenant to become partners in “tikkun olam:” repairing a world estranged from its essence. Never again in history would G-d completely part the veils that conceal Him, communicating His presence to an entire nation.
Forty days later, in a moment of collective insanity, the people deny G-d. They substitute the moral sovereign of the universe with a golden calf. G-d now views His attempt to mold a people into a "kingdom of princes and a sacred nation" as a colossal failure. He sees no value anymore in the Jewish experience. Moses stands up to G-d, eliciting from Him a deeper chord in His relationship with Israel. G-d re-embraces the people and instructs them to build a home in their midst for His elusive presence. In this sanctuary, the all-pervading truth of G-d would be more manifest and accessible. The Jewish people en mass present o Moses large amounts of gold, silver, copper and many other materials required for the construction of an exquisite tabernacle. Moses appoints brilliant architects, sculptors, and designers to build the home, design the vessels, carve out the furniture and craft the items that would make up the new Divine home.
At the opening of the Torah portion of Pekudei (1), the work is complete. Soon, the sanctuary would be erected and the Divine presence would reside therein. This is a charged moment, a dramatic peak in a long and turbulent journey of a people. After all of the ups and downs, G-d is about to "move in" with the Jewish people.
The hero of the story is, no doubt, Moses. With courageous selflessness, he triumphed, over G-d, as it were. He is the man responsible for bringing the people—and G-d—to this extraordinary moment, when humanity would reintroduce G-d to a world that banished Him.
Time for Bookkeeping
But wait. Right at this moment, the Torah interrupts the narrative, shifting the story from creating a space for G-d in this world, to the realm of bookkeeping. Moses, at this point, presents a detailed account of all the wealth contributed to him for the construction of the tabernacle. He reports to the people how many pounds of gold, silver, and copper he received, and how exactly it was used in the structure. He gives an account for every last piece of jewelry and metal that came into his hands.
Why? The Midrash (2) relates that some Jews murmured about Moses stealing some of the money, using charity funds for his own purposes. Thus, Moses gave a detailed account of the destination of every “dollar” collected in the grandiose “building campaign.”
This is a simple but very telling scene. Moses, let us recall, is the spiritual giant of history, whom Maimonides defined as the greatest human being to ever walk the earth (3). "G-d would speak to Moses face to face, as a man would speak with his friend," the Bible says (4). "Not so my servant Moses," G-d thunders on Aaron and Miriam after they had gossiped about him. "In My entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles; he gazes at the image of G-d. Why do you not fear to speak against My servant, Moses (5)?"
Does a man who speaks to G-d face to face really need to prove that he is not using money for a cruise in the Caribbean, for a new BMW or to build his portfolio? The Jews, observing Moses' unparalleled devotion and love to them in the most trying of circumstances, knew full well that Moses was no charlatan. If G-d trusts him, they could trust him too. Even if some Jewish rabble-rousers murmured about Moses stealing some of the money, we would expect Moses to ignore them.
"Who do they think they are to question my integrity," we would expect Moses to think to himself. "I gave my life for these rebels, when G-d wanted to destroy them. After all, it was G-d Himself who appointed me to my present position, against my will (7). How dare they challenge my honesty?"
These feelings would be understandable. Yet, astonishingly, without even being asked or instructed to do so, Moses, in total humility, stands up and gives an accounting for every last penny that came into his hands.
One of the great Halachik authorities, Rabbi Joel Sirkish (1561-1640), known as the "Bach," derives a law from this episode (7): Even the most beloved and believable collectors of charity are obliged to give a detailed account to the community of the destination of every cent they collected for charity. Nobody, writes the Bach, could be trusted more than Moses, the man whom G-d Himself trusted. Yet even he felt compelled to give an accounting of all the contributions.
An interesting historical note: The Bach was extremely wealthy. He was the Rabbi of Cracow and he lent the community enormous sums of money. He fed and supported many of his students, distributing enormous sums for charity.
This is one of the great moral messages of Judaism: When it comes to somebody else’s money, be accountable for every dollar. Don’t cover up, don’t lie, and don’t deceive. You can’t lie to people and then be honest with G-d, with your wife, with your children, with your friends.
If only Bernie Madoff would have internalized this story…
We all need and thus appreciate money. Some of us love money. Even spiritual leaders need money and often cherish it deeply. Rabbis are also only human beings. That is not evil. The story turns ugly when we become dishonest with our money. We must learn from Moses: to always be able to give an account for every dollar that came into our hand.
Respecting Another Person
There is yet something deeper. Moses truly believes in the dignity of the people and in their right to know what has transpired with their contributions. Moses does not allow his spiritual greatness and extraordinary authority to implant in his psyche a sense of superiority over the masses, in which it is beyond his ego to give them a detailed account of his spending. On the contrary, he views his G-d-given power as a means to confer dignity and greatness upon all of the people.
Moses set an example for all the generations to come. The great Jewish leaders always understood that what qualified them as leaders and teachers and what bestowed upon them the rights to power was not their charisma, brilliance, skills, or even the fact that the Almighty Himself appointed them to their position. It was, rather, the fact that deep down in their hearts they really viewed their "subjects" as equals. They possessed a sincere belief that dignity was the property of all.
Insecure leaders must resort to fear and tyranny in order to ensure loyalty and secure their position. They must speak in the name of authority rather than in the name of integrity. They must remain aloof and superior and never allow the simple folk too much access to the truth. Vulnerability is too dangerous. At best, they create followers. Genuine leaders, on the other hand, gain the trust, appreciation, and affection of their people, because of their trust in the people and their unyielding faith in the majesty of every individual human being molded in the image of the Divine. They create leaders.
This is true about all of our relationships in life. If you wish to inspire genuine loyalty, in a marriage, in the work place, in friendships, you must learn to genuinely accept the other person as an equal, conferring upon him or her the dignity you hold dear for yourself (8).
1) Exodus 38:21.
2) Shmos Rabah 51:6.
3) Rambam, commentary on Mishnah, introduction to Sanhedrin chapter 11.
4) Exodus 33:11.
5) Numbers 12 7:8.
6) Exodus chapter 3.
7) Yoreh Daah section 257. Cf. an interesting story related by his son-in-law, RabbiDavid Segal, known as the "Taz," in his "derashos" for Parshas Pekudei.
8) This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbas Pekudei 5744, March 3, 1984, and on other sources.