Parashat Pekudei: Honest to God

The major lesson of the many repetitions in this week's portion is in order to provide absolute transparency with regard to the many donations.

"These are the accountings [the numbers and weights of gifts - Rashi, ad loc] of the Sanctuary." (Exodus 38:21) One question in the mind of every believing Jew is: "When will the Messiah come?" It would certainly be nice if he arrived before Iran perfects its nuclear bomb, or before Hamas gains ascendancy over the West Bank as it did over Gaza. The Midrash maintains that the Messiah will come as soon as all the Jews in the world fully observe two Sabbaths in a row. I would suggest a radically different possibility: the Messiah will come when most people in the world identify a "religious" Jew as one who personifies ethical probity and moral righteousness, rather than as one who punctiliously observes Sabbath ritual and puts on phylacteries every morning! The major lesson of the many repetitions in this week's portion - an "accounting" (literally pekudei in Hebrew) of the precise numbers and weights of every object in the Sanctuary - is in order to provide absolute transparency with regard to the many donations and their precise use. Not even Moses was considered beyond reproach! This transparency begins even before the figures are provided. God initially commands Moses: "See [Re'eh, second person singular], I have called out the name of Bezalel the son of Ur the son of Hur of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding and artistic knowledge of every craft…" (Exodus 31: 2-4). In next week's reading, when it is Moses who is singling out the architect, the text reads: "See [Re'u, second person plural] the Lord has called out the name Bezalel the son of Ur the son of Hur of the tribe of Judah." (Ex 35:30,21). Why is Moses addressing all the Israelites (plural verb re'u) whereas God only addresses Moses (singular verb re'eh)? The Talmud maintains it is for the sake of transparency: "No public appointment may be made without the consent of the people" (B.T. Brachot 55a), especially since Hur, the grandfather of Bezalel, was the son of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron (Rashi ad loc, B.T. Sota 11b). The people had to confirm the appointment of a relative of Moses, no matter how talented he may have been. And Moses was certainly suspect even in the eyes of the nation for whom he gave up a princely life in Egypt. The Midrash Tanhuma, on the verse, "And it came to pass as Moses would be going out to the Tent (of Meeting), that the entire nation would stand… and look after Moses until he would enter the Tent" (Ex. 33:8), interprets as follows: "The cynics of the generation gossiped about Moses, saying what a heavy neck he has, and what heavy legs; apparently he eats from whatever gifts we bring to the Sanctuary, and he drinks from whatever offerings we make to the Sanctuary." Such charges are only the result of uncounted, unnumbered, un-weighed silver, gold, incense and sundry accoutrements. For this reason does our Bible render the precise accounting in our portion of Pekudei, to prevent any malicious whisperings. This accounting of the Sanctuary donations set the standard for subsequent biblical and talmudic law. "You shall be innocent in the eyes of God and Israel" (Numbers 22:23) clearly means that not only must we actually be innocent of wrongdoing in the eyes of God, but we must also appear innocent in the eyes of our fellow Israelites. Hence during Temple times, the priestly Garmu family, which had the exclusive recipe for baking the ever-fresh Show-Bread, never served bread at their own table, and the Avtinas family, which had the exclusive recipe for mixing Temple incense, never provided perfume for brides in their family weddings (B.T. Yoma 38a). Thekohanim-priests never entered the Temple chamber to take out from the half-shekel tax for the daily sacrifices with sleeved or cuffed garments, lest they be suspected of pilfering shekels for their own use (Mishna Shekalim 3, 2). A heartwarming incident in Second World War Europe involved 10 Orthodox Jewish businessmen, each a millionaire, who inexplicably received European checks for $100,000 each from an individual none of them knew. Each placed his check in a separate account, waiting for it to be claimed. And claimed it was, after the war had ended, by Paul Reichman, a wealthy businessman who could not take his money out of Europe during the war, but knew that if he survived, he would require the wherewithal to begin anew. He took his chances that 10 wealthy observant Jews would unselfishly guard his money and return it at the proper time. To the glory of these observant Jews, Reichman was not disappointed. He himself - together with his brothers - succeeded with the million dollars he had saved in building a vast economic empire. The family continued to remain observant, and at the same time gained an international reputation for unimpeachable business ethics. Many readers are familiar with the first biblical interpretation of Rashi to the first verse of Genesis. Rashi comments on why the Bible begins with the creation of the world, and (almost prophetically) responds that the time will come when the nations of the world will condemn us for having stolen the Land of Israel. We will then be able to answer: "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One blessed be He; He created it, and gives it to whoever is righteous in His eyes." These words are unfortunately often translated in an off-hand manner, to the effect that God can give the land to whoever He wishes. But that is not what the words say. The Land of Israel has a unique moral and ethical sensitivity. Only if we are righteous in our ethical conduct will we be able to retain sovereignty over it. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.