This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Accounting for Accountability*

Following his people's disgraceful lapse into the worship of the golden calf, Moses removed the Tent of Meeting, the tangible symbol of God's presence among his unworthy nation, and pitched it outside the camp. The Torah describes with pathos how the people would watch from behind as their leader entered the tent that no longer stood in their midst: "The people rose up and stood and looked after Moses until he was gone into the tent" (Exodus 33:8)

Although we might be justified in expecting that the entire people had by this stage been stricken with remorse about their grave offense, some rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud stated that the verse should be read in a derogatory manner, as an indication that they were disparaging Moses even now.

The Talmud does not quote the accusations that the malcontents were making about the great prophet. In fact, Rashi notes that their slanders were so offensive that the talmudic sages were loath to repeat them. Nevertheless, he refers us to some passages in the Midrash that were less squeamish than the Talmud about filling in the disquieting remarks.

According to those sources, as the Hebrew wags watched Moses walking by, one would quip to another "Look what fat legs and neck Amram's son has!" The cynical companion would reply: "What else can you expect? When a person is in charge of the construction of the Tabernacle, is it not to be assumed that he would emerge from the project with great wealth!"

According to the sages of the Midrash, it was upon hearing such malicious accusations that Moses decided to order a full audit, in order to show his critics how he had disposed of every penny of the contributions to the Tabernacle building fund. The result was a lengthy (and, some might say, tedious) recapitulation of the Tabernacle's inventory that was appended to the end of the book of Exodus.

Such scrupulousness was not required by the Almighty, who declared his confidence that Moses was "faithful in all mine house." It was, however, crucial to fend off the suspicions of human critics.

The importance of a complete and honest audit was appreciated by the traditional commentators. A special sensitivity to the issue is perceptible in the words of Don Isaac Abravanel who served as the minister of finance for the governments of Portugal, Spain, Naples and Venice.

Abravanel drew upon his professional expertise to solve a thorny old exegetical difficulty in the interpretation of Exodus Chapter 38: Why is Aaron's son Ithamar singled out for special mention in the review of those who worked on the Tabernacle and its vessels, when there were so many other priests and Levites who participated in the project?

Abravanel's plausible answer is that Ithamar was appointed by Moses to conduct the final audit of the project, to be based on data provided by the artisans who had actually used the materials.

The ancient sages were acutely conscious of how important it is to avoid even the remotest grounds for suspicions of misappropriation. The Mishnah ordained, for example, that individuals who wished to deposit coins for the various Temple funds should take care not to wear long sleeves or any other kinds of clothing that might give rise to charges that they had secretly pilfered from the box and hidden the loot in the folds of their garments.

In later Jewish law codes, these examples formed the basis for several regulations governing the collection of charitable funds on behalf of the community.

The metaphor of a final audit is of course familiar from the Hebrew liturgy and moralistic writings. Central to the imagery of the New Year prayers is the idea that the deeds of each and every person are recorded in a metaphysical ledger that is reviewed annually by the supreme judge.

In addition to the yearly audit, the sources speak of a final review of our lives when we pass on to the next world. The words of Job (37:7), "He sealeth up the hand of every man," were interpreted to imply that God requires each person to sign an exhaustive transcript of all the good and bad deed that were performed during one's lifetime.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot exhorts us to be ever aware that one day we shall have to submit a full report before the supreme sovereign of the universe.

In Modern Hebrew, the Mishnaic expression, "din ve-heshbon" (usually abbreviated as the acronym "dua"ch") has become the normal way to designate a commercial or administrative report.

Several commentators have called attention to the illogical phrasing of the Hebrew expression, which translates literally as "a judgment and an account." Would it not make better sense, they ask, to reverse the order, so that the judgment or assessment comes after the submission of the factual data?

In fact, they reply, this is precisely what our sages wanted to teach us: that at the time we are performing our actions and reviewing our deeds, we should never for a moment lose sight of the fact that they must conform to the demanding moral and religious standards of the all-knowing absolute judge. Those who do not worry about ethical concerns until after the report has been composed are inviting tragedy.

This is a lesson that can be profitably learned by many of our Wall Street CEO's and accounting firms.

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  • First Publication:
      The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, October 8, 2002, p 8.