Teach Them to Keep Hands Out of the Till!



The second part of this week's double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei contains a mundane account of all the materials that went into the making of the Tabernacle. Our sages derive a profound lesson from the opening words of Pekudei: "These are the accounts of the Tabernacle which were rendered according to the commandment of Moses … by the hand of Itamar."

They take note of the specific wording of this verse. It does not say "the accounts which Moses rendered"; rather, it talks of Moses commanding Itamar to take charge of the accounting. To put it in modern parlance, Moses, who is in charge of the Tabernacle project, was audited!

Despite his faithfulness, even Moses was not to be entrusted alone with the inventory of the metals used in the construction of the Tabernacle. From this, the rabbis conclude that a community must appoint at least two people to oversee finances.

In the next section of Exodus Rabbah, the following law is quoted: "An official who enters the Temple treasury to take out the money must not enter with folds in his garment or with felt shoes (where money could be hidden) lest in the event of his becoming rich, people would say that he became rich from the Temple treasury. For a person should be above suspicion from his fellows as he must be morally clean before God."

Learn From Their Misdeeds
Perhaps this last law should be engraved in the halls of Congress and the Knesset. People who are in public office must not just be beyond reproach, but above even the slightest appearance of impropriety. Yet in both major American political parties, in every recent government in Israel, this has not been the case. The scandals are endless.

Some cynics might just say, so what's new?

Politicians have long been corrupt, and no amount of reform legislation — such as the recent curbs on lobbyists and the prerequisites they offer — will put an end to officials illicitly dipping into the public till. That may be the case.

What is new, however, is the lack of sustained public outrage and outcry, both in this country and in Israel. Perhaps the American public does not expect better from its elected officials because of its own behavior. Are the misdeeds at the top echelons of our society a reflection of the lack of ethical standards in the rest of society?

Consider that a Psychology Today survey a few years ago revealed that 38 percent of people admitted to cheating on their tax returns. College surveys have shown that a shockingly high percentage of students have acknowledged cheating on tests or plagiarizing for written papers. After all, these days, you can buy college research papers on the Internet!

All of this calls into question the basic moral development and education of our children. Most educators believe a person's basic sense of right and wrong is inculcated in the years from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Children model their behavior on the behavior they see in parents and teachers, and what they are exposed to in the mass media. As the late media critic Neil Postman put it: "Children are the living message we send to a time we will not see."

If we want our children and young people to grow into future leaders with integrity, we must use the teachings derived from this week's Torah portion about ethical accountability and the other rich sources in our tradition on this topic.

Let them learn from Moses — and not from popular culture — about what it means to be an accountable leader.

Rabbi Alan Iser is the religious leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.


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