Long ago, Solomon, the wisest of all men, said “There’s nothing new under the sun.”1

Anyone involved in communal work knows all too well that being in the public eye is a double-edged sword. While it’s nice to be well-known and respected, high-profile figures are also prone to being talked about at the dinner table. “Did you see the rabbi’s new car? And what about the Rebbetzin’s new earrings?”

So I found it comforting to read that even Moses had tongues wagging in his day.

When it came to the building of the Tabernacle, the Sanctuary in the wilderness, the people had plenty to say about Moses. Looking closely at the verse, “They gazed after Moses,”2 the Midrash quotes some rather snide remarks about the great man.

What exactly were the people gazing at?

“Look at that neck … those legs … Moses is eating and drinking what belongs to us. All that he has belongs to us!”

And another fellow added, “What do you expect? A man in charge of the work of the Sanctuary shouldn’t get rich?”

As soon as he heard this, Moses said, “By your life, as soon as the Sanctuary is completed, I will make a full reckoning with you.”3

Moses, the greatest prophet of all time, was suspected of making a profit on the communal collection? Of raiding the Tabernacle treasury? The man who took us out of Egypt, split the sea, brought us the Ten Commandments and so much more was accused of fraud and embezzlement? It seems incredulous!

You mean to tell me that if Moses bought a new animal they would say, “What, he bought the latest model, that souped-up, super-charged donkey? And if his wife, Tzipporah, got a new dress, they would chirp, “And did you see what she wore to the wedding last night? That outfit must have cost her a fortune at Saks Fifth Avenue!”

Well, it seems like it wasn’t very far from that.

“If Moses went forth early from his tent, they said, “Why does the son of Amram leave so early? Perhaps all is not well at home?" If he left late, they said, “What do you think? He is sitting and devising evil schemes against you and is plotting against you.”4

Now, of course Moses knew that he was absolutely and completely innocent of any wrongdoing. But the Torah itself states “And you shall be clean and innocent before G‑d and before Israel.”5 And the Talmud derives from this that “Not only must one’s behavior be innocent and beyond reproach in the eyes of G‑d, but he must also ensure that he is beyond suspicion in the eyes of man.”6

And so, in what was most likely the very first official audit in history, Parshat Pekudei records how Moses ordered a meticulous accounting of the gold and precious materials collected from the Israelites for the construction of the Tabernacle.7

Some 33 centuries before terms like accountability, transparency, and good governance became common parlance, the first national leader of the Jewish people had instituted just such a system.

I am reminded of another scandalous story where people spoke critically, not of Moses, but a leader of the Chassidic movement. Some wise guy announced in the presence of the Gaon of Vilna that he had seen, with his own eyes, the Chassidic leader “eating meat and drinking wine on Tisha B’Av and even dancing with female companions!” And guess what? It was absolutely true! Really? Yes. It was Tisha B’Av which fell on Shabbat, so the fast was actually postponed until Sunday, and the feasting was obligatory. And the female? She was but a few days old and held on a tray.8

When rabbis like me read about the greatest of the great being maligned and slandered it makes it easier to handle it when we hear those “innocuous” comments that can often bury someone; those not-so-silent whispers about us or our families. Well, if it could happen to Moses and the greatest leaders of Chassidim, why should I be spared?

Of course, there is a glaring inconsistency here. The same people who complained about Moses getting rich from their donations had nothing whatsoever to say about their contributions to the building of the Golden Calf. While they suspected Moses may have had his hand in the till, no one enquired why their piles of gold jewelry had only resulted in the creation of a little calf. All that gold for a tiny calf? No problem. Nobody demanded any audits there. But the Tabernacle? Suddenly they wanted to know where all the gold had gone. “You’d better be able to account for every penny of expenses!”9

Come to think of it, this pretty much reflects our own human inconsistencies, doesn’t it? I know a guy who can blow a hundred thousand dollars in two hours at the casino, but ask him for a donation to the shul and he wants to see the budget and the balance sheet and how every last cent is being spent, “and, by the way, do we really need so many peanuts and raisins at the Kiddush?”

This week, we learn about leadership, transparency and accountability. And that is how it should be. But there’s another lesson too, and that’s about consistency. Yes, transparency in the corporate governance of our shuls, religious, and communal institutions is very important, and we should make no excuses whatsoever. But let’s be consistent and wise in our own spending too.