World of the Sages: Public funds

Leaders at all levels bear responsibility for dispensing public funds. Charities need to carefully consider how they will distribute monies so kindly entrusted to them: Which individuals are most worthy?

Leaders at all levels bear responsibility for dispensing public funds. Charities need to carefully consider how they will distribute monies so kindly entrusted to them: Which individuals are most worthy? Which individuals are most needy? Governments agonize over how to allocate scarce resources, with budget debates often the most protracted issue in the parliament and its committees. Even householders need to wisely weigh the options as they set aside a portion of their income for worthwhile philanthropic causes. While it is a privilege to make such decisions, the task carries much accountability, and those entrusted to make such important determinations must be dependable, trustworthy and reliable. The Talmud relates a paradigmatic tale of the responsibility of one whose duty involves public money (B. Berachot 18b). The father of the talmudic scholar, Shmuel, was entrusted with orphans' money. When the custodian passed away, his son was not by his side and he told no one where these monies could be found. Suspecting the worst, people began to taunt Shmuel, calling him "the son of the one who consumed the orphans' money." Troubled by this snide heckling and hurt by the affront to his father's honor, Shmuel made his way to the courtyard of the cemetery. Being a kohen, Shmuel could not enter the cemetery grounds and remained outside the burial area (B. Megilla 22a). Facing the graves, Shmuel addressed the deceased: "I seek Abba." "Abba," however, was a popular name, and the dead spirits retorted: "There are many Abbas here." Seeking to provide more detailed information, Shmuel responded: "I seek Abba the son of Abba." This, too, was insufficient: "There are many Abbas the son of Abba here." "I seek Abba the son of Abba, the father of Shmuel. Where is he?" "He has ascended to the Heavenly Academy." In the meantime, Shmuel spied a former colleague, Levi, who was sitting at a distance from the other dead spirits. The deceased spirits appeared to be sitting in a circle, while Levi had positioned himself outside that ring. "Why are you sitting outside the circle?" inquired Shmuel. Levi responded: "I have not been admitted to the Heavenly Academy on account of the distress I caused Rabbi Afeis when I declined to go to his academy. My entry has been barred for the equivalent number of years that I did not accord Rabbi Afeis the respect he deserved" (B. Ketubot 103b). Despite being worthy of joining the Heavenly Academy, Levi was not granted entrance. Nevertheless, it was unsuitable for him to join the circle of the undeserving deceased and hence he sat outside the group (Gra, 18th century, Vilna). It is unclear why the Levi episode is a necessary part of the tale. Perhaps recounting Levi's punishment for paining Rabbi Afeis is an indication of the retribution that awaited those who insinuated a misappropriation of the orphans' money by Shmuel's father. While Levi and Shmuel were talking, Shmuel's deceased father arrived. Shmuel noticed that his father was both crying and laughing: "Why are you crying?" The father replied: "For you will soon be coming here to join me," alluding to Shmuel's looming death. Hearing news of his impending demise, Shmuel quickly asked: "Why are you then laughing?" "For you are highly regarded in this world," answered the deceased father, referring either to the world of the living or to the heavenly realm. Seizing the opportunity to help his peer, Shmuel promptly responded: "If I am so highly regarded then let them admit Levi to the Heavenly Academy on my account." The ploy worked and Levi was given leave to enter. Now Shmuel turned to his father with the purpose of his visit: "Where is the orphans' money?" "Go take the monies from inside the bed-stone of the flour mill. The money on the top and the money on the bottom are ours, while the money in the middle belongs to the orphans." Surprised by this method of storage, Shmuel inquired: "Why did you place the money this way?" "So that if robbers would pinch any of the money, they would steal ours first, since our money was on top. And if the earth would cause some of the money to rot, our money at the bottom would be destroyed before the orphans' funds were affected." Not only had Shmuel's father not pilfered the orphans' money, he had gone to great lengths to protect their interests, putting his own funds in danger in favor of the safety of the monies of his charges. Despite being a learned and pious person (B. Beitza 16b; Rashi, Hullin 111b), Shmuel's father appears to be a nondescript character. Throughout rabbinic literature, he is known simply as his famed son's father. In this passage where we are privy to his name - Abba - we learn that it is the most common of names. Even when his spirit is called from the dead, it is raised by the name of his illustrious son: "I seek Abba the son of Abba, the father of Shmuel." Yet Shmuel's father serves as a most powerful paradigm: Custodians of public funds must be extremely concerned with civic well-being, perhaps even at the expense of their own personal financial security. How we would laud contemporary leaders were they to improve the lot of their constituents at their own expense! Thus, Shmuel's father's seemingly characterless name - Abba, meaning father - reveals his essence as a father figure to the unfortunate orphans. Just as it would be incongruous for a parent to steal from a child, it is inconceivable that Shmuel's father would embezzle the orphans' money. Being in charge of the money of others is a privilege, but as with so many honors and opportunities, this privilege entails responsibility. A leader is more than an elected ruler; a leader should be a civil servant, with the public interest foremost in any reckoning. Indeed, this is a high moral standard, but it is a worthy benchmark to which we should aspire as we debate the best use of public funds. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.