Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the Rabbi David Lyon
Proper Accounting is a Jewish Value
The last portions of Exodus are periodically read as a double portion, called Vayakheil-Pekudei. This year, we read them on separate weeks, but they work well, together. They recount the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God’s presence during the Israelite’s wilderness journey. Under the watchful eyes of contractors, artisans, and Moses, himself, it was completed on time and on budget. In fact, there was so much collected by the community that Moses had to order the people to stop giving. In my opinion, it was the last time in Jewish history that a capital campaign was ever completed with such outstanding results.
At the end of the project and near the end of the Torah portion, we read, “These are the accounts (records) of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ request…” (Exodus 38:21). Rabbinic commentators pointed out that, though Moses was a man of extraordinary faith and whose business was above reproach, he requested an accounting to demonstrate that even he was a man of duty before the people.
Our Sages taught that in communal finances one should never give the responsibility to fewer than two or even three persons; yet Moses was given sole charge of all contributions. But as soon as the Tabernacle was finished, Moses, out of his own choice, had an audit made; hence “These are the account (records) of the Tabernacle…” (Exodus Rabbah 51:1).
When I was a boy, I often volunteered on Sunday mornings in the Temple’s religious school. Every Sunday morning, each class collected tzedakah, and it was the job of the religious school office volunteers to go around to each class and pick it up, count it out, and record the totals. I’ll never forget that my rabbi assigned another young student and me to go together and collect the tzedakah from each classroom. I never felt that he didn’t trust my friend or me, but it didn’t occur to me then that he was honoring an old but important Talmudic lesson.
My friend wasn’t Moses and neither was I, so it stood to reason that “no fewer than two” should go to each classroom and make the collections. Indeed, when we returned to the religious school office, we sat together, opened the small bags (pushkes) and envelopes and counted the coins (there were never dollar bills). Then we tallied the results and put the coins in a cash box with our paperwork. Only later did I come to learn that the rabbi followed the Jewish lesson, which made for a “kosher” accounting of the day’s collection and relieved us, the two errand boys, of any questions about our work.
The Talmud lesson also made it clear that a collection, properly done and accounted for, made for a “kosher” project, over all. How could it be, the Sages reasoned, that God’s blessing could be manifest in a Tabernacle if it were built from bad business dealings or shady accounting? What kind of a house is that for God? What kind of house is that for anybody?
When we build a home for our family, we affix a mezuzah on the doorpost. As we do, we recite a verse from Psalm 127:1, “If God doesn’t build the house, its builders toil in vain.” If we build a house from bad business dealings and shady accounting, then it’s rotten at its core. It won’t stand, and it won’t support the family that dwells there. But, if God builds the house, that is, if good business, proper accounting and honest work provide for its completion, then it’s a house worthy of God’s blessing and its occupants will be blessed, too.
In all that we do, let reverence for God’s teachings (Jewish values) guide our decisions and actions. The results should go well with us and those who are touched by the work of our hands.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.