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The Torah vs. Corrupt Leaders #716

03/04/2022 05:50:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Pekudei

The Torah vs. Corrupt Leaders

One of the greatest casualties we face today is the loss of faith in those we once trusted.

There was a time when — as a rule — governments, their leaders, and those who spoke for them were inspired by value systems, but recently too many regimes have abused their power to pursue campaigns of self-interest.

This is not new.

Jewish tradition took note of this thousands of years ago, putting to paper a series of safeguards to protect the public from the imperfections of its leaders.  

This week’s Torah portion provides a case in point as we complete the reading of the Book of Exodus

When we began the second book of the Torah, we existed as a loose collection of 12 tribes. But now, as we complete Exodus, we have coalesced into a strong and morally focused nation, governed by a code of laws and a profound relationship with God.

And one aspect of this newborn society was God’s enactment of strict measures governing the behavior of its leaders — to help ensure that not only did they behave morally — but were seen to do so.

On the surface, this week’s parashah is an accountant’s fantasy. Shekel by shekel, talent by talent, it lists how much was spent on each component of the mobile sanctuary that housed the Ten Commandments.

This audit accounts for every half shekel to ensure that all the money donated went into the construction of the temple, and not into the pockets of those who managed the project.

Our tradition goes one step further.

The Midrash — our collection of ancient oral tradition — notes that the officials who supervised the collection of the shekel wore special short sleeved garments without pockets so that no one could accuse them of pocketing public funds.

Moreover, family members of those who prepared the incense were not permitted to wear perfume, lest someone accuse them of using the fragrances collected for personal benefit.

When reviewing this week's parashah, the late Jonathan Sacks, England’s former Chief Rabbi, commented: “It is the Torah’s way of teaching us the need for financial transparency.”

Through these simple laws, the Torah sends us an important message underscoring a theme that runs through the Bible: Human leadership is flawed.

Lord John Dalberg-Acton, the 19th century British historian, wrote these famous word: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This past week, we have witnessed in Ukraine what the Torah sought to protect us from, punctuated by Lord Acton’s observation.

Many issues contributed to Russia’s brutal and unconscionable assault on Ukraine. But one of them is Vladimir Putin’s absolute and complete corruption of power.

Under his oppressive rule, opposing voices have been silenced. Media has been censored. The growth of his personal wealth has grown exponentially.

A disturbing trend has developed throughout the world. Many leaders have seized upon the myopic and seductive lure of nationalism to justify often illegal and self-serving behavior. Putin is just one of them — albeit currently the most powerful and ruthless.

As prophets such as Amos and Micah wrote thousands of years ago, too often, it is not the public we should be blaming, but rather its leaders and those who sustain them. 

One of the great features of America’s government is that presidents serve only for two consecutive terms. 

In many other countries, leaders who serve more than a few years, often fall victim to scandal and corruption. It is, therefore, important for us to monitor our leaders and hold them accountable.

Like the Israelites in the desert, we must sustain a civilized society, enforcing effective conflict-of-interest laws, so that leaders at all levels enter public service with pockets sewn, and the fragrant perks of office locked out of reach.

Centuries have passed, but the Torah’s theme remains the same. Leaders must serve the people, and not vice versa.

Indeed, within the Bible, there is not one prophet or king who — at one point — is not lured by physical temptation or spiritual distraction.

Even more reason for us to consider the lesson inspired by this week’s Torah portion.

This Shabbat, our prayers are with the people of Ukraine. We are inspired by the fact that many of them, armed with no more than rifles and bottles, are holding back stronger, better armed forces.

It is a tragic situation, but reminiscent of our Jewish story.

For we as a Jewish people have always believed in the eventual victory of light over darkness. The Ukrainians are led by a president, Volodymyr Zelensky, borne to that tradition.

Let us take a moment now to send our light to the people of Ukraine. More importantly, let us open our hearts and our pockets to support those who are suffering.

For we believe that ultimately, embracing light and generosity will lead to victory.

In the end, the leader with "corrupt pockets" which the Torah speaks of, shall be brought to justice.

And the world will rise higher than before. 

It is that profound faith which has carried humanity forward in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

Still, this week, we are all a little afraid.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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