Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.
The concept of accountability implies that a person who assumes a position of responsibility should at all times be able to justify his behavior and actions while holding that position. Ideally a person should be his own best attorney, and should never need external aid in acquitting himself before the public. However due to the fallibility of human nature and the tendency of most people to act inconsistently, it is imperative that a separate system of checks and balances should exist which can effectively monitor and scrutinize the actions of individuals. The realm of fiscal accountability requires special attention because of the very common human proclivity to waste resources or misuse them. For this reason the profession of auditing exists, to gain an external view of how a firm or organization is operating and to assess its fiscal situation.
The problem here is where to draw the line between trust and supervision. If a person would feel that at all times his actions are under close supervision he may act in a way which is contrary to the goals for which he was chosen. However, if he is given free reign he could also make irresponsible decisions. Is it not enough for us to know that the person is trustworthy and meritorious, and hence we can assume that he is working in the best interests of the public? Dr. Ernst Nebenzahl, the late Israeli State Comptroller for 20 years and president of the Jerusalem College of Technology, insisted that “trustworthiness is a necessary requirement for a public servant, but it is not sufficient. In addition there must be proper supervision, and an organized supervisory system.”(Quoted by Miriam Ben Porat, memorial brochure to Dr. Nebenzahl)
In Parshat Pekudei we find detailed accounts of every contribution to the Tabernacle and what it was used for. Moreover the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 51) comments that Moshe did not do the accounting on his own, but rather enlisted Aharon’s son Itamar to help him. This is inferred from the passive form “was brought to account” (“poked”) rather than the active, “counted” (“pakad”). The Midrash praises Moshe for this, citing the verse (Proverbs 28:20) “Man of faith, prince of blessings.” At first glance the Midrash seems to say that through his sterling conduct Moshe brought blessings to the nation, but possibly the Midrash means that through his willingness to undergo the external audit of Itamar, Moshe himself merited the people’s blessings. Parenthetically we should add that Moshe had forgotten certain items when balancing his books, and needed Divine help to account for all the contributions to the Tabernacle. (Tanhuma 7)
From this source we can see an unequivocal viewpoint favoring close supervision. Yet the very next Midrash quotes another verse which emphasizes the opposite view. In Kings I, XII, we read concerning contributions to the Temple: “They would not take an account from the people whom they gave money to distribute to the workers, because they worked on trust.” This source seems to teach us that honest people in sensitive positions should not have to furnish explanations for the way they allocate funds. Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Batra 9a) derives from here that “we do not make accounts in charity matters (asking what was done with the funds-Rashi),” and this Halacha is quoted by Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch,the Code of Law(Yoreh Deah 257,2).How can we reconcile this with the previous Midrash?
Rabbi Levi, son of Gershon (Gersonides) was a thirteenth century polemicist and commentator who sought to resolve this contradiction. He maintains that even though there is no legal obligation to account for one’s actions, there is still a moral need to give a clear account in order to prevent any suspicion. The concept of preventing unfounded suspicion is also a biblical idea- The Mishna in Shakalim 3:2 writes that the person responsible for emptying the collection boxes in the Temple did not enter the room with a doublet (which could conceal cash in its folds) or with shoes, because if he became rich people would assume it was from the collection boxes ,and if he became poor people would assume he was punished for absconding public funds. The Torah states that “You should be clean before G-d and Israel” (Numbers 32:22), specifying that personal integrity must be transparent and not just between man and his creator. The rule that we do not question what was done with charity money does not negate the need for a collector to give detailed accounts. On the contrary, it should be in his interest to prevent any suspicion and unfounded criticism of his good name.
We can now perceive that a delicate balance is necessary here. Judaism believes in trust and good faith but expects the individual who has gained the public’s trust to establish of his own accord an effective auditing system. Such a system would ensure that he has not erred and would maintain his reputation in the eyes of the public.
Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).