This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

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Our ancient sages seemed to have an inordinate interest in Moses' financial situation. At first glance, this seems to be a superfluous concern. After all, whatever material goods the people might have taken with them from Egypt, even if they amounted to considerable riches, would have been largely irrelevant in a desert where there was nothing to purchase, and where their sustenance was provided directly by the Almighty.

And yet the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash insisted on embellishing the Torah's narrative with detailed accounts of Moses' affluence.

Take for example the following interpretation of the scriptural assertion that the man Moses was very humble (Numbers 12:2). The Midrash specified that this description refers only to his personality, but not to his economic circumstances; in that area, he was in fact quite well-to-do, as indicated by Exodus 11:3: Moreover the man Moses was very great...

The rabbis insisted that Moses had an independent source of income. This had come to him as a byproduct of his receiving the tablets of the covenant at Sinai. God instructed Moses (in connection with the second set of tablets, in Deuteronomy 10:1): Hew for yourself two stone tablets. The Hebrew word p'sol that is translated as hew is related to the word p'solet meaning waste, and this suggested to the rabbis that Moses was being authorized to keep for himself the chips or flakes that remained from the carving of the tablets.

Now, the rabbis related that the stone from which the tablets were made was not your garden-variety brand of worthless rock. No indeed. The holy commandments were inscribed on precious gemstone--sapphire to be exact. The sages arrived at this conclusion by creatively juggling several different scriptural texts. One verse (Exodus 32:16) stated and the tablets were the work of God, and another (24:10): and they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone. Ergo, the work embodied in the tablets must also have been composed of sapphire! Thus, it was evident that the Almighty had allowed Moses to keep those priceless scraps for his personal use.

An alternative tradition, motivated perhaps by the rabbis' discomfort with the notion of Moses making private use of the sacred tablets of the law, stated that God had actually revealed to Moses the location of a diamond mine that was conveniently situated beneath his tent.

The Torah itself provides us with some clues as to why the rabbis went to so much trouble to establish that Moses was wealthy. At the end of the book of Exodus, after the lengthy narration of the building of the Tabernacle, there is a time-consuming review of the accounts of the tabernacle... as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses. Later, when Korach and his minions challenged Moses' leadership, the prophet insisted I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them. Episodes such as these imply that suspicions were making the rounds that Moses had been skimming from the public funds that were entrusted to him.

The rabbis offered their own reconstructions of what some Hebrews were saying about their illustrious leader. When Moses would enter the Tent of Meeting to commune with the Creator, all the people rose up, and stood, every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses (Exodus 33:8). Rabbi Hama read this passage as a classic instance of talking behind a person's back, with all the negative connotations that normally attach to such situations: They would taunt: 'Look at his neck, look at those legs! He is eating the Jews' goods, and drinking the Jews' goods, and in fact everything he owns was taken from the Jews.' And his companion would respond: 'When a person is in charge of the construction of the Tabernacle, wouldn't you expect him to become wealthy?!'

Evidently, the Babylonian rabbis found these comments so shocking that, when they cited the tradition, they buried the insulting accusations under an ellipsis. Rashi filled in the missing quotes from other sources. At any rate, the rabbis believed that it was in response to those insinuations that Moses insisted on ordering a full public audit of how he had disposed of the goods that were donated to the Tabernacle building fund.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went so far as to insert a suspenseful moment into the story, when Moses panicked at not being able to account for a certain expenditure of 1,775 shekels--until God himself reminded him of the purchases for which they had been used. In a similar vein, some of the sages observed that it would normally be perfectly acceptable for a manager to charge the costs of donkeys or other means of transportation to their expense account for use in the performance of their duties; but Moses had to be unusually scrupulous in this matter because of the allegations that were being made against his integrity.

Whenever we find a midrash taking such liberties with the literal facts of a biblical narrative, it is natural to inquire after its motives. The most plausible reason is that the ancient homilists were trying to make the scriptural text relevant to their own situations. Of course, for as long as there have existed organized communities, there have been ambivalent relationships between their leaders and their constituents. There is an advantage to appointing leaders who are independently wealthy, or to paying them generous salaries, in order to remove the temptation to pilfer from the public coffers. Furthermore, the ancients were far less embarrassed than many of us are by affluence, and few would have questioned the assumption that wealth was a desirable virtue in an ideal leader. The house of the Nasi, the Jewish Patriarchate, was famous--or notorious--for its ostentatious wealth, provoking criticisms that are echoed in the pages of rabbinic literature. In fact, most of the rabbis who were so concerned with expounding the details of Moses' financial policies flourished in chronological and historical proximity to the centres of patriarchal authority.

It is therefore probable that the rabbis were projecting onto Moses the same kinds of tensions that prevailed in their own communities, where rabbis often took upon themselves the reins of leadership and earned much popular resentment for their efforts. They were trying to convince both themselves and their flocks that they were following in the steps of the noble prophet and faithful shepherd of his people. Accordingly, the criticisms to which they were subjected could be viewed as a latter-day incarnation of the incessant whining of those faithless and malicious Israelites in the time of Moses.

At the same time, the ancient sages were offering some very practical recommendations about how to avert potential frictions in the community--by pursuing a policy of fiscal transparency and honest bookkeeping.


This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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