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The Measure of Transparency

08/03/18 14:16:44


Transparency, accountability, openness – these are the buzzwords today for any organisation or business worth its salt. They are also the key words to understanding the opening of the second parasha this week, Pekudei, Exodus 38. It begins with Moshe giving a detailed financial accounting of the costs of setting up the Mishkan (Sanctuary).

Moses was all too aware of the need to be upfront and transparent in his presentation and so he lists each item: “And the gold offering was twenty nine talents and seven hundred and thirty shekels” (Ex 38:24). He well understood not only the temptations of leadership and the aphrodisiac of power, but also how important public perception is.

The Midrash highlights how carefully each move of his was monitored by the people: “People criticised Moses… Moses is eating and drinking what belongs to us… A man in charge of the Sanctuary – what do you expect? That he should not get rich?”

Integrity in public life is critical and we are entitled to know how our politicians and representatives are spending our money. Trust is the very essence of a free and open society and we can expect our leaders to be above-board and not succumb to the sometimes extremely difficult temptations of public office. The recent Barnaby Joyce imbroglio is a case in point as is the ongoing public and media scrutiny of our politicians and their travel, entertainment and general allowances. The #metoo campaign is another case in point: men in positions of power need to be extremely aware of the potential abuse of their office.

Is there however a limit to accountability, to responding to public perception? Sometimes the general public is an irresponsible beast, easily induced to biting impulsively. Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (quoted by Rabbi Sacks) writes that “one is not responsible for [the perceptions] of everyone; it is not necessary to be blameless in the eyes of mistaken or foolish people.” So there is a limit, and as Rabbi Sacks himself notes, a leader is not answerable to wild and malicious criticism. At times like this, prudent silence may be the best response.

Extending the idea of transparency and openness, there is another area where these can be damaging, which is also alluded to in our parasha. In one of the rare occasions that the Torah comments on art, it notes that the artwork and craftsmanship of the builders of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) did well “according to all that the Lord had commended Moses” (Ex 39:32)

Rabbi Abraham Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, had some intriguing views about art and its purpose (quoted in Sivan Rahav-Meir): “Literature, painting, and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul. As long as even a single line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been given outward expression, art, sculpture or literature has a duty to bring it out.”

Art can bring out the most noble and inspiring human qualities; its emergence into the open is to be welcomed! However is it right to express everything, “to let it all hang out”, to be completely free and transparent? Does the artist have a duty to exhibit every creation that springs out of his or her heart or mind?

Rabbi Kook has a response to this: “But it is understood that it is good to uncover only those treasures that, in being opened up, add fragrance to the air of existence. However, the hidden things whose burial is their deserved disposal, we must close them up with a spade. Woe to the one who uses this spade for the opposite purpose, increasing a bad odour in the air.” Sometimes airing things creates a foul stench!

There is an important and great value to being open, genuine and transparent, this is the currency of trust. But there are also limits and necessary boundaries. A refined sense of proportion and balance creates a personal life of pleasure and beauty; it also enhances our public life and discourse.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Ralph

Fri, 15 November 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780