“Honesty and Integrity in Public Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Pekudei, the Torah portion begins with an accounting of the amounts of gold, silver and copper that were contributed to the construction of the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle. Despite the fact that these communal gifts were deposited in the hands of Moshe and Bezalel, people whose integrity were beyond reproach, a full and precise accounting was made.

Exodus 38:21 reads, “Ay’leh phi’kudei ha’mishkan, mishkan ha’eidut, asher pukad al pi Moshe,” These are the reckonings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which were reckoned at Moses’ bidding. All the items are then listed, as if it were an accountant’s audited report: All the gold that was used…39 talents and 730 shekels; silver…1,775 shekels; copper…70 talents and 2,400 shekels. The uses of these precious metals were then delineated.

According to the Code of Jewish law, a gabbai tzedakah, who collects for, and maintains, a public charity, should never attend to public funds alone, but should always be accompanied by two or three others, to underscore public accountability. This rule is most likely based on Moshe’s reckoning of the mishkan contributions reported in our parasha.

Honesty and integrity, of course, play a major role in the Jewish religion, and especially leaders, who serve as role models for the rest of the community, are expected to live up to the highest standards. I find it intriguing to note that in all of Jewish history I cannot recall a single great scholar who was regarded as a scoundrel or dishonest person. This, of course, is not true in secular life today. A person can be considered a great scholar in his/her field, and yet be gravely lacking in other areas of life, even to the point of being decadent or evil. In fact, in Judaism, it seems as if one’s scholarship is not at all regarded, unless the scholar is a person of good character.

A person’s honesty and integrity can make a huge impression on other people’s lives. A Jew, especially an observant Jew, who is scrupulously honest, is regarded as a Kiddush Hashem, a living sanctification of G-d’s name, because of the positive impact he/she may have on others.

Not long ago, I heard a story of a young woman who had become religiously observant. The young woman’s mother, highly offended by her daughter’s turn to religiosity, refused to speak to her. On one occasion, the young woman made a phone call from a telephone booth and left her phone book behind. Shortly afterwards, a religious young man found the book and started calling some of the names listed in the book, hoping to fulfill the mitzvah of Ha’shavat a’veida, returning a lost article to its proper owner. Eventually he dialed a number in Florida and spoke to a woman. The woman thought the owner of the diary might be her daughter, and gave the man her daughter’s number. After calling the young lady and confirming that she was the owner, the young man arranged to return the diary. When they met, the young lady told him that her mother was so impressed that a young man like himself, religiously observant, would make such a valiant effort to find the owner of the telephone book, that she decided that she had made a terrible mistake, and that the lifestyle that her daughter had adopted was indeed appropriate. As a result, the relationship between mother and daughter was restored and even enhanced.

I remember reading an ad in the Jerusalem edition of the Jerusalem Post, in the “Lost and Found” section, that touched me deeply. It read: FOUND — Sefer Ramban (Nachmanides) in English, Commentary on the Torah, Exodus. Cash reward given for help in finding owner. Apparently, someone had found this book on a bus or in the street, and was so eager to return it to its proper owner, to fulfill the mitzvah of Ha’shavat a’veida, that he or she took out a newspaper ad, at their own expense, and offered a reward to anyone who would help find the rightful owner.

The Talmud, in Yoma 38a, cites many examples of public servants who deprive themselves of certain luxuries and conveniences so that they would be above any suspicion of wrongdoing: The House of Garmu never allowed their children to eat bread of fine flour, lest the people say that it was taken from the Show Bread that their family produced for the Tabernacle. The House of Avtimas never allowed the brides of their family to wear perfume, lest the people accuse them of using the perfumes of the incense which they were charged with producing. Similarly, any person who entered the “Shekel Chamber” in the Temple was not permitted to wear a sleeved cloak, shoes or sandals, lest they be accused of pilfering shekels from the Temple.

Moshe gave a full reckoning of the mishkan donations in order to be beyond reproach, a fulfillment of the Biblical statement (Numbers 32:22): “Vee’heetem n’kee’yim may’Ha’shem oo’may’Yisrael,” And you shall be innocent before G-d and the People of Israel.

This incredibly high level of probity that is expected of Jewish leaders and lay people is, in effect, a crown of majesty that the Torah bestows on the Jewish people, to rise far above the level of honesty and goodness that is commonly expected of society in general.

Although according to Jewish tradition, G-d created the human being a little less perfect than the angels, we often find excuses to justify our errors and transgressions. Because of the blandishments of contemporary society, we need to work diligently to rise up to the angelic level. I believe it was Martin Buber who said in his comments on the Third Commandment–of not taking the name of G-d in vain, “Don’t turn G-d into what you’d like Him to be. Turn yourself into what G-d wants you to be.”

May you be blessed.