Keeping Accounts

Moses' account of all of the materials of the Tabernacle is a model for the honesty and transparency with which we should run our businesses.

Commentary on Parashat Pekudei, Exodus 38:21 - 40:38

Have you ever noticed that the Ten Commandments take up only a handful of verses in the Torah, while the construction of the Tabernacle is given several chapters worth? Perhaps this is meant to mirror life itself–moments of high moral impact and lofty sentiments are short and infrequent, while shopping lists, renovations, and daily chores take up huge amounts of time. But this is all godly work, the Torah seems to be telling us. Even the most creative tasks have their tedious details; even the most mundane jobs can be infused with mindfulness and holiness.

Completion of the Tabernacle

This week’s portion, Pekudei, concludes the Torah’s recounting of the building of the Tabernacle. This has been going on for five weeks–two weeks of instructions in designing the Tabernacle, two weeks describing the construction work, broken in the middle only by Ki Tisa, the story of how the Israelites came up with their own building project–the Golden Calf.

“These are the accounts of the mishkan” (Exodus 38:21), begins Pekudei, and then proceeds to tell us how much gold, how much silver, how much copper was used in its building. This seems curious. If the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) was done according to God’s specifications, and Moses was supervising the work, why does the Torah bother to give us an accounting?

Surely Moses, of all people, could be trusted! Are these accounts just the wrap-up, the final audit of the books, on a par with the meticulously detailed blueprint for the Tabernacle? Or are they intended to impress us with the richness and beauty of the Tabernacle, built with precious materials in such abundance?

The rabbis in the midrash connect the accounts with the responsibility of leaders to their people, and with the age-old temptation for dishonesty and mistrust with regards to precious. The Midrash says:

Moses said: I know that Israel are grumblers. So I will give them an accounting of all the work of the Tabernacle. He then proceeded to give them such an account–“these are the accounts of the Tabernacle”–giving them an accounting for each and every item, whether gold, silver, or brass, that was used in the Tabernacle, in order of their use…

Apparently, whatever the people’s feelings toward Moses in general, when it came to money, trust was a scarce commodity. Sure, Moses was trusted by God–but that wasn’t necessarily the same as being trusted by people. Those in positions of power need to be aware of the jealousy that their power and actions can evoke. They particularly need to be sensitive, not only to doing the right thing, but to how people will perceive their actions and attitudes. The Midrash continues:

Now, why did he feel he had to give an accounting? The Holy One trusted him, as is said, “He is trusted in all My house” (Numbers 12:7). Why then did he give an accounting?

Because he heard the scoffers of the generation talk behind his back, as is said, “Whenever Moses went out to the Tent [of Meeting], all the people would rise and stand… and gaze after Moses until he had entered the Tent.” (Exodus 33:8).

Of course, when we read Exodus 33:8, we imagine the people rising out of honor and gazing in awe as Moses is enveloped in the pillar of cloud at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The rabbis of the midrash, however, give us a different sense–the people standing in sullen resentment, sniping behind his back:

What were they saying? Eyeing him with contempt from behind, one would say to the other: Look at his neck! Look at his thighs! He stuffs himself with what belongs to us and guzzles what is ours. And the other would reply: Stupid! A man appointed over the work of the Tabernacle, over talents of silver and talents of gold whose weight and number are too great to measure–what do you expect? That he would not enrich himself?

When Moses heard this talk, he said: As you live, when the work of the Tabernacle is finished, I will give you an accounting. When it was finished, he said, “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle” (Exodus 38:21).

Accounting in Modern Times

How apropos to read about the need for proper accounting in the aftermath some of the largest bankruptcies in American history. It is not merely the collapse of companies and the loss of jobs and business that has so shocked the country. It is the damage caused by companies’ dishonest accounting practices, and the fury with executives who cashed out billions of dollars in company stocks when they were near their peaks.

By contrast, the accounts of the Tabernacle are transparent, made public, for the entire community to hear. It is not just the people’s gold, silver, and copper that have been given to the building of the mishkan–it is their trust as well. Pekudei serves as a useful reminder to our community organizations and businesses that they must operate–and be seen to operate–at the highest levels of honesty and transparency in bookkeeping.

The word pekudei from which the parashah derives its name can be translated in various ways–accounts, records, remembrances. It cautions us that keeping accounts is not only a responsibility to those involved in an enterprise, but a remembrance of how one has acted in the world.

“These are the accounts of the mishkan–the mishkan of witnessing,” begins the portion. The structures we build in our communities bear witness to what we have put into them. How we use, or misuse, the trust and assets of other people is ultimately recorded, witnessed, and remembered.

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