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Matot-Masei 5767-2007

“Vindicated Before G-d and Before People”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the first of this week’s double parashiot, parashat Matot, we read about the tribes of Reuben, Gad (and, eventually, half of Menashe), who decide to live on the eastern side of the Jordan, rather than continue westward with the rest of the People of Israel to settle in the Promised Land.

Moses regards their request as rebellious, accusing them of forsaking their brothers and sisters at a time of singular need. He further charges the tribes of Reuben and Gad of trying to demoralize the nation just as the ten evil scouts had done before them. Moses, however, becomes convinced of their faithfulness when the two tribes assure him that they are fully prepared to send troops into the land of Canaan and assume a leading role in the battles until the lands are successfully conquered.

Moses sets conditions for the tribes, confirming that they will send the troops to fight and conquer the land with their brothers. Moses then says to the tribes: When the land will be conquered before G-d, and you shall return, (Numbers 32:22) “Vee’h’yee’tem n’kee’yeem may’Hashem oo’mee’Yisrael,” then shall you be vindicated before G-d and before Israel, and the land shall be a heritage for you before G-d.

The Talmud in Yoma 38a maintains that there is a great moral lesson conveyed in Moses’s statement. When Moses declares to the tribes of Reuben and Gad that they will be vindicated, he in effect declares: It is not enough to know that what one does is acceptable in G-d’s eyes, it must also be construed by the people as acceptable and done in a way that will not engender suspicion in others.

The issue of being vindicated in the eyes of G-d and society has become a major contemporary concern. As our society becomes more “transparent” due to electronic trails that are now left by many of our actions (e.g. internet, EZ Pass, cell phones), people’s indiscretions become publicly known far more frequently and far more easily than ever before. Making improper personal use of business funds, company cars and planes, executives who use company staff to do repairs on their personal property, all have become a great source of increased concern in the business world. Despite the many millions of equity shares that are traded each day, insider trading can now be almost instantaneously detected.

Although Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon states in Ethics of the Fathers 3:2 that, were it not for the fear of government, people would eat each other up alive, our Torah adjures us to maintain a policy of honesty not out of fear of secular authorities, but because of G-d, and to enhance the well-being of humankind.

The Talmud provides a number of fascinating examples from ancient times in which people of authority had the opportunity to personally benefit, but decided instead to go beyond the letter of the law in order to make certain that they would not take unfair advantage of their position. In tractate Yoma 38a, we are told of the members of the house of Garmu, experts in preparing the Temple showbread, who were singled out for praise because never was fine bread found in their children’s hands. The Garmus were concerned, lest people say that the children’s bread came from the preparation of the showbread, from the profits of their payments, or from the remainders of the dough. They thus endeavored to fulfill the commandment, “You shall be vindicated before G-d and before Israel.”

The members of the house of Avtinas were charged with the preparation of the incense for the Temple. They were also singled out for praise because never did a bride in their family go forth perfumed when she was married. Any woman who married into their family had to vow not to wear perfumes, lest people say that the perfumes came from the preparation of the incense. They, too, thus fulfilled the commandment, “You shall be vindicated before G-d and before Israel.”

The Mishnah in Shekalim 3:2 notes that anyone who desired to make a donation to the Temple would not be allowed to enter the charity chamber wearing clothing with hems, shoes, sandals, teffillin, or amulets (where coins could be hidden) lest they became poor and people would say that they were impoverished because they committed iniquity in the chamber, or, if they became rich, people would say that their newfound wealth was from pilfered charity funds.

The Talmud in Peshachim 13a teaches that when charity collectors have no poor to whom to distribute their funds, they are required to change the copper coins that might tarnish for silver coins, but they are not allowed to exchange these coins among themselves. Similarly, supervisors of soup kitchens, who have no poor to feed, must sell the foodstuff to others, not to their own family members, because of Scripture that says, “You shall be vindicated before G-d and before Israel.”

The message is clear. The Torah instructs us to be totally honest and make certain that even the slightest appearance of wrongdoing is avoided.

May you be blessed.