I have written and lectured extensively on the topic of Jewish leadership. I have frequently indicated that I consider Moses our teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu, a role model for those who would be leaders.
Once, after a lecture on just this topic, I opened the floor to a question-and-answer session. I have always found such sessions useful and instructive. The questions that are raised by the audience are often quite provocative, raising unanticipated issues.
On this particular occasion, a gentleman in the audience raised a question which encouraged me to think long and hard. He asked, “Rabbi, can you recall a moment in your own career when Moses’ example influenced your leadership behavior? What specific lesson did you learn from Moses?”
At first, a number of possibilities came to mind. After all, Moses was a teacher, an advocate for the people, a person who came to the aid of the oppressed, a selfless person. Surely there are many aspects of Moses’ life that I have tried, however inadequately, to emulate.
But after some introspection, I recalled one specific incident and shared it with the audience. I told them that the one time I most consciously followed Moses’ example was the time when I was entrusted with some Chanukah gelt.
When I was a child, I remember fondly how my grandfather would gather all of his grandchildren around the Chanukah menorah, have us line up in order of our ages, and distribute to each of us a silver dollar, Chanukah gelt. Many still practice this custom, although I suspect that nowadays far more than a silver dollar is distributed.
One year, back when I was the rabbi of my former synagogue, I received a phone call from a gentleman just a few days before Chanukah. This gentleman was one of the influential trustees of a major charitable foundation. I had interacted with him many times with regard to proposals I submitted to the foundation for grants to community institutions. He typically studied these proposals very assiduously and asked very demanding questions of me about these proposals. He would say, “There is much that I find worthwhile in your proposal. My tendency to be generous inclines me to grant you the funds you request, but I cannot be generous with someone else’s money.”
He voted against almost every proposal that I submitted.
One year, just a few days before Chanukah, he called. At that point, none of my proposals for charity was even under consideration. I was surprised by his call and even more surprised when he asked me to lunch that very day.
We met at a local restaurant and chatted about all sorts of things for the better part of an hour. Finally, he asked me if I knew what Chanukah gelt was. He himself had fond memories of the Jewish customs he had experienced in his childhood.
When I assured him that I knew very well what Chanukah gelt was, he withdrew an envelope from his pocket and said, “Here is a check for Chanukah gelt. I know that you control a discretionary charity fund and I’d like you to deposit this check in that fund for the use of truly needy families.”
Of course, I thanked him profusely for the donation. I did not think it was proper to open the envelope in his presence, so I didn’t open it until I returned to my car. I was astonished to find that the sum was easily equal to the yearly salary of most of the members of my congregation. When I looked at check more carefully, I noted that he had made out the check to me personally, and not to my discretionary fund.
I cannot deny that I immediately heard the loud voice of temptation. But, along with that voice, another voice was heard, and it uttered nothing other than the first verse of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Pekudei, (Exodus 38:21-40:38): “These are the records of the Tabernacle…which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding…under the direction of Itamar son of Aaron the Priest.”
The people had contributed vast amounts of silver and gold and other precious materials for the construction of the Tabernacle. Moses, and only Moses, was in charge. He was, in the words of the Midrash, a gizbar, the comptroller of those funds. Technically, he was accountable to no one. He did not have to make a reckoning, and he certainly did not have to invite another person into the process.
But our verse tells us that he not only initiated a reckoning, but he invited his nephew, Itamar, to hold him to account. He insisted upon full accountability for every bit of the material collected.
Midrash Rabbah comments, making use of other biblical verses: “‘A dependable man will receive many blessings, but one in a hurry to get rich will not go unpunished (Proverbs 28:20).’ Moses was a dependable man, as is written, ‘Not so with my servant Moses; he is trusted throughout my household (Numbers 12:7).’ He alone was the gizbar, yet he invited others to perform the accounting…our verse does not read, ‘These are the records which were drawn up by Moses,’ but rather, ‘These are the records which were drawn up at Moses bidding.’ Moses asked to be held accountable, and did what he could to be assured that he would be held accountable.”
Getting back to that cold pre-Chanukah afternoon, I am proud to say that my conscience prevailed. It was in the days before cell phones, but I immediately went to the nearest phone booth and called my “Itamar,” a respected member of my congregation. I told him that I held this magnanimous gift in my hands and wanted him to know about it. I asked him to form a small committee which would decide exactly how to distribute the “Chanukah gelt” to those who needed it the most. Until today, we jokingly refer to that committee as “the Itamar committee.”
The commentary known as Torah Temimah, written by the early-20th-century rabbi, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, opens his remarks on this week’s parsha with a citation from an earlier halachic authority known as Bach: “Although a trustee of charity who has proven himself trustworthy need not be scrutinized, it is, nevertheless, advisable that he give a full reckoning of his collections and distributions, as did Moses our teacher.”
Long after the incident with the Chanukah gelt, I came upon this astute remark in the book The Transparent Society by David Brin: “When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.”
Not so with Moses. He demanded accountability for himself, and so should we all.