Drash on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Parah)
Rabbi Fred Morgan
UPJ Movement Rabbi
Accounting for the Mishkan
As anyone who has ever put together a piece of furniture from IKEA knows, there is a world of difference between reading the directions for assembly and actually putting them into effect. For the past three weeks we’ve been reading the directions for assembling the mishkan or Tabernacle. This elaborate structure will provide a dwelling place for God and accompany the Jewish people in their wanderings through the wilderness. This week’s double Torah portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, reiterates these directions, in many places word for word, as the people, led by the master craftsman Betzalel and his deputy Oholiav, go about constructing the mishkan.
We don’t hear any of the expletives that normally accompany the construction of an IKEA product; undoubtedly these were edited out of the text. (The spirit of Purim continues to hover over this week’s drash!) But, at the start of the portion Pekudei, we do have an unexpected recording (pekudim) of all the gold, silver, copper, threads, clothing and furnishings that went into the Mishkan and its accoutrements. Moses himself orders this accounting: the accounts are drawn up al pi Moshe, at Moses’ bidding.
The tradition asks why Moses would have drawn up this report, and why the accounts are recorded with such care in Torah. Many answers are offered but they all boil down to one simple idea: people in public office, leaders of the community, must be above reproach. They must work to a higher ethical standard than others. The rabbis understood that, whenever people are in a position of handling sums of money or goods on behalf of others, there is a temptation to appropriate or misuse them.
The Masorti chumash Etz Hayim puts it perfectly. Those who are responsible for expending funds for the public good “must be above any suspicion of personal aggrandizement.” It refers to the midrash on Shir Hashirim which teaches that the official who supervised the collection of the half-shekels which we read about on Shabbat Shekalim would wear a garment without pockets or long sleeves so no-one could accuse him of pocketing the offerings. Whether or not he did actually wear such a garment, it is clear that the rabbinic sages could not abide the thought of corruption in public service. They see this value reflected in the opening to Pekudei, where Moses carefully records all the offerings that went into the construction of the mishkan.
In our day and age, it is similarly unconscionable that figures in public office would defraud those whom they serve by mishandling funds, selling the fruits of their position, doing secret deals that bring them reward or engaging in corrupt practices of any kind. And it is equally unacceptable that the public would excuse any of these corrupt practices on the grounds that “it’s just what politicians do” or “he may be financially suspect but he’s good for the Jews,” as we sometimes hear. It is unethical to argue that the holding of particular political views justifies financial corruption.
Sadly, financial corruption is well-documented in Israel. The number of political leaders who have spent extended periods in jail for their fraudulent activities is shocking. It is not only embarrassing to us in the Diaspora when high-ranking public figures in Israel are arraigned on charges of fraud and the misuse of public funds; it is not only criminal activity; it is also contrary to the models of leadership expressed in the Torah and it undermines the values which have defined our people for millennia. The damage that corruption does to the Jewish soul is inestimable. Every Jew has the right – and the duty - to demand that Israel’s leaders are fully accountable, even as Moses was.