Honesty and Integrity in Public Life”
(Revised and updated from Pekudei 5760-2000)

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 מִּשְׁכָּןMishkan, the portable Tabernacle. Despite the fact that these communal gifts were deposited in the hands of Moses and Bezalel, people whose integrity were beyond reproach, a full and precise accounting was conducted.

Exodus 38:21 reads, אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל פִּי מֹשֶׁה, 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…29 talents and 730 shekels; silver…1,775 shekels; copper…70 talents and 2,400 shekels. The precise use for these precious metals was then delineated.

According to the Code of Jewish Law, a גַּבַּאי צְדָקָהgabbai tzedakah, a person who collects for, and maintains, a public charity, should never attend to public funds alone, but must always be accompanied by two or three others, to ensure public accountability. This rule is most likely based on Moses’ reckoning of the Mishkan contributions as reported in our parasha.

Honesty and integrity, of course, play a major role in the Jewish religion. The probity of leaders, who serve as role models for the rest of the community, is especially expected to be beyond reproach. It is quite likely, that in all of Jewish history not a single great scholar was regarded as a scoundrel or dishonest person. This, was not true of the kings of Israel, and, of course, is not true in secular life today. A person can be considered a great expert or scholar in his/her field, and yet may be gravely lacking proper values in other aspects of life, even to the point of decadence or evil. In fact, in Judaism, it seems as if one’s scholarship is not at all regarded, unless the scholar is of truly upstanding 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 מְקַדֵּשׁ שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם M’ka’desh Shaym Shamayim, as sanctifying G-d’s name, because of the positive impact he/she may have on others.

Many years ago, I heard a story about a young woman who had become religiously observant. The young woman’s mother, highly critical of her daughter’s turn to religiosity, was so angry, that she stopped speaking to her daughter. On one occasion, the young woman made a phone call from a telephone booth (remember those?) 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 find the owner and fulfil the mitzvah of הֲשָׁבַת אֲבֵדָהHa’shavat a’veidah, returning a lost article to its rightful 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. When the woman asked the man why he went through so much trouble to return the phonebook, the young man explained that he was religiously observant and wished to fulfill the mitzvah of returning a lost object.

After calling the young woman and confirming that she indeed was the owner, the young man arranged to return the diary. When they met, the young woman began to cry, explaining that the young man had not only returned her address book, he had also returned her mother to her. She told him that her mother was so impressed that a religiously observant man like himself would expend so much 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 was leading 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, which 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’veidah, 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 ancient public servants who deprived 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 Showbread 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.

Moses gave a full reckoning of the Mishkan donations in order to be beyond reproach, a fulfillment of the Biblical statement (Numbers 32:22): וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִּם מֵהשׁם, וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל , And you shall be innocent [literally: clean] 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.