Good Governance

Moses exemplifies a lesson in business ethics.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Midrash is the art of keeping an ancient sacred text alive.The Rabbis were masters of drawing water from stone, of transforming the most mundane passages of Torah into luminous nuggets of spirituality. Our parashah offers a provocative example of their creative touch.

It opens unexcitingly with an inventory of the metals used in the construction of the Tabernacle, more specifically with a financial statement of their worth. Moses felt obliged to state for the record the amountof gold, silver, and copper that went into the artifacts of the sanctuary. In the first verse we are told: "These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses' bidding . . ."(38:21).

The sums are vast. With the weight of a talent equal to 3,000 shekels, Moses deployed 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold, 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver, and 70 talents and 2,400 shekels of copper in the tabernacle. It should be noted that these quantities were voluntarily given by the public in response to a fundraising campaign. Stirred by the prospect of an ongoing presence of God in their midst, the Israelites had shared of their wealth unstintingly, more than was actually needed (36:4-7).

Example for Future Leaders

A midrash accentuated what was implicit in the narrative. In rendering an account to his donors, Moses had set an example for future leaders. Despite his closeness to God, Who said of him that "he is trusted (ne'eman) throughout My household" (Numbers 12:7), Moses chose to give an accounting of the funds collected to his flock.

It is for this reason that the verse in Proverbs, "Adependable (emunot--same root as above) man will receive many blessings" (28:20) describes Moses to a tee. Irrespective of his power, he subjected himself to the norms of good governance. His behavior proved to be a blessing because it exemplified that confidence in a leader requires transparency.

A related midrash made the same point in rabbinic terms. According to the Mishnah, "No office for communal financial matters is to be instituted with less than two officers" (Shekalim 5:2). Yet it is apparent throughout the Torah that Moses governed alone. Still to be above reproach, Moses complied with rabbinic practice. He invited Aaron's son Ithamar to perform the audit (38:21). In regard to public funds, there must not be aniota of suspicion about misappropriation.

Thus when a priest in the Temple would withdraw money to payfor the daily communal sacrifices from the room in which it was held, he always entered in a garment without cuffs or pockets. Religious leaders administering public funds ought to be unblemished in the eyes of their constituents as well as in the eyes of God, which is why the Torah explicitly states, "You shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel" (Numbers 32:22) (Shemot Raba 51:1-2).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.