The Torah reading of the book of Shemot concludes this week with the reading of the total portion of Vayakhel and Pekudei. These two portions are a fitting conclusion to the long narrative describing the construction of the Taberncle/Mishkan. Every great project, whether physical or spiritual, is yet incomplete without an accounting being given as to the investment, effort and cost relating to the project.
One of the great principles of the Torah and of Jewish life generally is accountability – for behavior, speech, actions and even thoughts. The Talmud phrased it succinctly: “Human beings are always accountable and liable for their actions.” We have a concept in the Talmud that one can be found not to be liable for actions caused by human negligence or mistakes by an earthly court but still be liable in the heavenly court, which judges all of our behavior.
As human beings we hold ourselves to a far less stringent standard of behavior and liability. But Heavenly judgment, which knows our true capabilities and potential, holds us to its lofty standard of accountability. And we are witness to that in the accounting that Moshe submits to us in this week’s Torah reading, of the wealth accumulated and spent in this great construction project of the Tabernacle/Mishkan.
The project was enormous in scope and in cost. Yet Moshe was aware that one thousand measures of silver were not accounted for. He could not rest until he traced the missing silver - which was actually used for the hooks that held the curtains that constituted the hanging tapestries of the structure.
One of the great demands of current politics that now engulfs us is the issue of transparency. We wish for transparency in government affairs, financial dealings and even in personal relationships. All governments are currently besieged by the leaking of sensitive documents and information and all of this is justified by the idea that the public has a right to know everything about everybody at all times.
In theory, transparency is a good and necessary component of a democratic republic. But the question arises as to whether there are any limits to this right to transparency. From the Torah itself it seems that in monetary matters and in accounting for the use of public funds, especially charity funds, there is no limit to the necessity for transparency and accountability.
However, in matters of personal behavior and past actions of human beings, the Torah does impose limits on the need for revelation. The laws of evil speech and slander apply even when one speaks the truth about others. Then, the so-called right to know is severely curtailed. Such distinctions do not exist in the culture that currently surrounds us. Private information about people’s lives, which at one time was considered sacrosanct, is today visible to all on social media and through the hackers and leakers that abound in our world. Even transparency has to have its limits of decency and restraint.
Rabbi Berel Wein