‘Were you honest?’

‘Were you honest?’

Parshat Pekudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a, we learn that after we die and ascend to the Divine realm, we are asked questions to determine our fitness to enter the Olam Haba, the world to come.

You might think that the first question asked would concern whether or not we observed Shabbat, kept kosher or prayed regularly. You might think that, in lieu of those questions, we would be asked if we had at least fasted for Yom Kippur or given adequate tzedaka.

But no. We are taught that the first question we will be asked by the kategor (prosecuting angel) is: “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

Our parsha this week, Pekudei, says that all of the donations given by the people to build and furnish the mishkan (Tabernacle) were accounted for, from the most to the least. The donations were staggering, so much so that Moses sent out word that the people should stop giving, as they had more than enough for the construction project.

The notion of honesty in handling both donations and business dealings is essential to being a good Jewish man or woman.

The extent of this righteousness is exemplified by the case of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach. In the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud), tractate Bava Metsia, 2:5, we are told that the rabbi’s students bought him a donkey to ease their master’s pains in traveling. After the purchase, they discovered a precious pearl that its previous master had not recovered from its saddle bag.

The students were gleeful. According to Jewish law, there was no impediment to keeping the pearl and using it to support Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach for the rest of his life.

But when Rabbi Shimon found out about the pearl he asked if the owner had known the pearl was on the donkey when it was sold. The students said that he hadn’t. Whereupon he insisted that the pearl be returned to the owner.

When his students protested that it was actually legal to keep the pearl, the text quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach as saying, “What am I, a barbarian?” They gave back the pearl.

Something can be legal and still not right to do. Honesty in handling material wealth is an essential Torah principle all the way back to the time of building the Tabernacle, through the rabbinic period and right on to our own day.

That is why, in Exodus 35:25-31, there is an exact accounting of the precious metals given and how they were used.

Maybe none of us use our gold, silver and copper to make a resting place for the Divine Presence as the artist Bezalel and his companions did. But we could argue that every human being contains a spark of the Divine. Cheating even one person tarnishes us, tainting any material gain we might achieve.

We need to learn lessons like this again and again. Handling material wealth demands accountability. This ethical principle is not limited to our businesses, however. It includes synagogues and Jewish nonprofits. We must hold ourselves to the highest possible standard. Why? People give to us precisely because we hold ourselves out to be good stewards of Jewish teaching and values, not just donations of material wealth.

When we are asked at the gates of heaven if we were honest in our business dealings, may we all be able to say with moral certainty, “Yes, we were!”  

Rabbi James Gibson is spiritual leader of Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.