The 5776 (2015-2016) cycle of Dvar Tzedek is a special one. To commemorate AJWS’s 30th anniversary, we are sharing a selection of some of our favorite commentaries from past years. Each legacy commentary will be introduced with a related reflection on AJWS’s work and contemporary issues.

Introductory Reflection

This week, we read Parashat Pekudei, which opens with a detailed list of the exact quantities of gold, silver and copper donated by the Jewish people to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In his 2010 Dvar Tzedek, Daniel Bloom explains that the Torah includes this list to dispel any accusations of corruption and affirm Moses’s desire to remain honest and transparent. Citing the midrash, Daniel writes, “Although Moses was trusted by God, some individuals did not have faith that a leader in charge of valuable quantities of uncounted resources would not enrich himself from the public treasury. Moses, upon discovering the suspicion, promised to conduct a thorough audit.”

Today, corruption is a real and dangerous threat to civil society in countries around the world. To preserve democracy, many social justice groups, including AJWS’s grantees, work steadfastly to hold their leaders accountable for the fair use of resources and rule of law. In Senegal, for example, a collective of young rappers, artists, writers and students called Y’en a Marre (YAM)—whose name means “enough is enough”—uses hip-hop to mobilize young people to hold their leaders accountable, encourage people to vote, and raise awareness about pressing issues like violence against women, Ebola and corruption.

During the Senegalese elections in 2012 and 2014, YAM mobilized youth through a campaign called “Dox Ak Sa Gox”—Wolof for “to walk with your community.” These elections were historic because the incumbent president was seeking re-election despite having already reached the term limit stated in Senegal’s constitution—an act that has led to decades-long dictatorships across Africa. Determined not to let this happen, Y’en a Marre mobilized 300,000 new youth voters to the polls and helped successfully bar his reelection. YAM activists continue to collaborate with youth-led movements in West and Central Africa, with the goal of building a Pan-African movement for democracy and justice.

Y’en a Marre encourages the type of transparency and accountability that Moses demonstrated in this week’s parashah. Click here to read more about Y’en a Marre and read Daniel’s piece below for more insight into why honest, transparent leadership is critical for a just society.

In the double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei we read a detailed recounting of the establishment of the Mishkan and the materials used in its construction. Allaying any suspicion of corruption, Moses and his workers display a model of leadership and accountability in handling the resources of Bnei Yisrael that leaders of the world’s nations today would do well to emulate.

Parashat Pekudei opens with the words “These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of testimony, which were reckoned at Moses’s bidding.”[1] It then goes on to list the exact quantities of gold, silver and copper which were contributed by Bnei Yisrael and used in the construction project. Midrash Tanhuma poses the question: “Why did he [Moses] give an account? [After all,] God trusted him, as it says ‘he is trusted in all My house.’”[2] The midrash answers that although Moses was trusted by God, some individuals did not have faith that a leader in charge of valuable quantities of uncounted resources would not enrich himself from the public treasury. Moses, upon discovering the suspicion, promised to conduct a thorough audit.

The Or HaChaim, an 18th-century commentator, asserts that the accounting also illustrates the diligence and efficiency with which the precious resources were handled. The Torah gives account of “all of the gold,” “the silver” and “the offered-up copper.”[3] Picking up on the superfluous wording of kol zahav, ‘all of the gold,’ the Or HaChaim explains that ordinarily when working with gold, some quantity is lost in the production process, but with the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels, the exact amount of gold that was contributed became part of the finished product. Not only did the leadership of the Jewish people not lay hands on the public treasury, but all of the artisans involved in handling the contributions ensured that nothing was lost or wasted.[4]

The honesty, transparency and efficiency demonstrated by Moses and his workforce regarding communal largesse stands in stark contrast to that of leaders and officials in much of the world. In the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe and his cronies of the ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front) have systematically looted and misused public resources. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), Gideon Gono, accused senior ZANU-PF officials of corruption costing the country an estimated US$1.7 billion per year. Additionally, government grain supplies, upon which many Zimbabwean farmers depend to sow their crops, have been used as a tool to buy off allies while denying supply to political opponents.[5]

The people of Zimbabwe have suffered from this mismanagement of public funds and supplies. Fewer government funds are available for critical public programs, causing the disintegration of the healthcare and sanitation infrastructure. This has led to, among other things, more frequent and more severe cholera outbreaks as well as the tripling of the number of women dying in childbirth. Farmers, lacking seeds to plant crops, have experienced decreased yields, compounding already severe food shortages.[6]

This abuse continues unchecked, largely because there is no mechanism to hold the government accountable for its actions. The lack of a free press or effective opposition to Mugabe’s regime has enabled him to operate without transparency or accountability. In contrast to Moses’s financial disclosure after building the Mishkan, Zimbabwean officials seldom release figures of RBZ spending, so it is unclear how many people have benefited from its programs or how the money was actually spent. And with domestic criticism suppressed and a muted response from the international community, the ZANU-PF operates with relative impunity.

Still, there have been hints of progress. In early 2009 a delicate power-sharing arrangement was signed between Mugabe and reformist rival Morgan Tsvangirai. There have also been efforts at introducing mechanisms of accountability, such as a land audit and a liberalization of the press. Unfortunately, these initiatives have thus far been stalled by ZANU-PF loyalists.[7]

There can be no doubt that the people of Zimbabwe require financial assistance from the international community, though clearly, monetary aid alone cannot solve a systemic problem that stems from the unjust and wasteful actions of the leadership. A similar idea was expressed by the Sforno, a renaissance-era Italian commentator who notes that wealth does not necessarily confer holiness. He observes that the amount of gold used in the Mishkan was far less than the quantities used in Temples. Nonetheless, the Divine presence dwelled more often in the modest Mishkan than in the first Temple,[8] and did not reside at all in the opulent second Temple. “It is not the allocation of wealth… that causes the Divine presence to dwell amongst Israel…” Sforno writes, “but their deeds.”[9]

Until the Zimbabwean leadership manages the community’s wealth with deeds of transparency and honor, and displays the kind of accountability and thoughtfulness modeled by Israel’s faithful shepherd, a sustainable development process in Zimbabwe will unfortunately remain elusive.

[1] Shmot 38:21.
[2] Tanhuma Pekudei 7, quoting Bamidbar 12:7.
[3] Shmot 38:24, 25, 29.
[4] Or Hachaim on Shmot 38:24.
[5] “Crisis without Limits.” Human Rights Watch, 22 January 2009.
[6] Ibid.
[7] AJWS. Hungwe, Brian. “Mugabe allies block Zimbabwe land audit.” BBC News, 4 February 2010. See also “Zimbabwe media ‘still not free.” BBC News, 8 October 2009.
[8] Tanhuma Terumah 11; Yoma 21b.
[9] Sforno on Shmot 38:24.