The Avodah Blog

“Then You Shall Be Clean Before God and Before Israel”: Public Service, Privilege, and the Place of Popular Opinion in Moral Judgment — D’var Torah, Parashat Mattot-Mas’ei

How do we know whether we are doing the right thing? Should we care what other people think of us as long as we’re doing what we understand to be moral and just? This week we read two Torah portions, Mattot and Mas‘ei, to close out the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. One statement of Moshe in Mattot seems to conflate Divine and popular approval; we will explore that statement and its interpretation in order to reach a deeper understanding of the place and time for adjusting our behavior to satisfy public opinion.

In Mattot, just as the people are finally ready to turn toward entering the Land, after forty years of wandering, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Menasheh ask Moshe for permission to settle where they were, on the eastern side of the Jordan river, on the lands newly conquered in the Amorite war: they had abundant cattle and those lands had excellent pasture (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:1). Moshe has a conniption: to his ears, this is a repeat of the fiasco of the scouts, 39 years years earlier, who aggressively denied that the Israelites could inhabit the Land and created a panic among the people. To Moshe, the request smacks of elitist privilege, which will sow resentment among the masses: “‘Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why would you turn the hearts of the Israelites away from crossing into the land that YHWH has given them?’” (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:6-8). The tribes manage to calm Moshe down when they acknowledge and assuage his fears, promising that they will share the risks with everyone else, going to war with them as shock troops, only settling in their eastern lands afterward. Moshe’s language in agreeing to these terms raises questions about the place of popular opinion in the discernment of the moral: “‘If you do this…and afterward you return, then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under YHWH” (vv. 20-22). Our question is this: from the perspective of religious law, why does it matter and in what way does it matter that these tribes be “clean” or blameless in the eyes of their fellow Israelites? If they are blameless in God’s eyes, if they have met divine standards for just behavior, why does it matter what other people think?

There is an early, Rabbinic discussion about how to discern God’s will and follow it in ambiguous situations not governed by a clear commandment. In a passage we discussed last winter, three days after the Israelites crossed the sea to freedom, God showed them how to purify bitter water and gave them their first commandment of the free times: “If you listen, really listen, to the voice of YHWH your God, doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes, giving ear to [God’s] commandments and keeping all [God’s] statutes, then every illness that I put upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I, YHWH, am your healer” (Sh’mot/Exodus 15:22-26). Early 2nd Century sages probed the meaning of “doing what is upright” in God’s eyes, above and beyond observing the commandments (Midrash Mekhilta of R. Yishma‘el, BeShallah: VaYissa‘ 1)

“‘…Doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes’: These are the acclaimed stories, which are comprehended by the ears of every person….the words of Rabbi Yehoshua‘.

Rabbi El‘azar of Modi‘in says: ‘…Doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes’ — this is business transactions, to teach that anyone who carries out business transactions faithfully, such that people are comfortable with them, is exalted as though they fulfilled the whole Torah.”

According to both rabbis, God’s will is discerned, in general, through popular, human consensus, either via the religious stories that resonate most broadly or via having a sterling professional reputation as a trustworthy person.

The notion that God’s will is discernible through human popularity finds even more explicit expression in one, classic, interpretation to the part of the Priestly Blessing asking that God shine the light of God’s face upon you “and show you grace” — “וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ” (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:25). One anonymous, Rabbinic voice understands God showing grace to mean that God “will give you grace in the eyes of other people” (Midrash Sifrei Bemidbar 41), adducing support from Genesis/Bereishit 39:21, where God shows Yosef favor by making his slaver like him, as well as Esther 2:15, Daniel 1:9, and, finally, Proverbs 3:4: “[Let kindness and honesty not leave you; bind them on your throat, write them on the tablet of your mind], And you will find grace and good consideration in the eyes of God and people”. According to this midrash, when we act responsibly, God will make others respect us and that is how we will know that God is pleased with us. This sensibility likely animates Rabbi Shim‘on’s famous teaching in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 4:13): “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name supersedes them all.” One may achieve religious distinction through learning, public, spiritual service, or government, but being well respected is, in this view, the superior indication of Divine grace and approbation.

How does this play out practically? What choices might be changed by taking this standard into account? Early Rabbinic sources heap praises on two priestly households who avoided any private use of goods similar to those of their specialty in Temple service. The House of Garmu were experts in making the Showbread and they are praised for never having bread from fine flour in their household, never feeding it to their children, “so that no one may ever say that they were fed with Showbread” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:5). It’s obvious to Biblical and Rabbinic law — no matter how widely violated in our world — that neither priest nor civilian may derive personal benefit from actual Temple goods: this is called “Me‘ila” and the Torah requires restitution with a financial penalty if one does this accidentally (Leviticus/VaYikra 5:14-16); it is strictly prohibited all the more so to derive such personal benefit intentionally, though there is some dispute as to just how severely this crime is punished (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 83a). In our case, though, the Garmu priests, of course, didn’t use fine flour actually belonging to the Temple. What they’re praised for is that they never used fine flour at all, even fine flour totally permitted to them. They denied themselves a basic, high-quality material good to prevent the public from casting a frivolous aspersion it would have no grounds to cast in the first place. The sacred bread artisans ate only cheap bread in their personal lives. Similarly, the House of Abtinus were experts in preparing the incense offering and they are singled out for praise because their entire clan completely abstained from wearing any perfume, “in order that no one ever say that they were perfumed from the pounded incense” (Tosefta Kippurim 2:6). In both cases, the Rabbis say that these praiseworthy abstentions from totally permitted goods are fulfillment of Moshe’s words to the 2 ½ tribes in our parasha: “then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel” (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22). When you’re in a position of leadership, the charge to keep a blameless reputation goes so far as refraining from privileges about which an ungenerous, tale bearing public might raise groundless suspicions.

This sensibility goes beyond post facto praise for meticulously scrupulous behavior to actual, legal regulations. The Rabbis ruled that a tax collector who finds a coin on the ground in public is prohibited from picking it up, even though you and I may do so if there is no accompanying marker through which we could hope to track down the person who dropped it. Not only that, but if someone who lawfully owes the tax collector money from personal business wants to pay them back, the tax collector is prohibited from accepting it while on the job. The law grounds these restrictions in the verse from our parasha: ““then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel” (Tosefta, Pe’ah 4:15). If you collect public money, you may never be seen putting money into your own pockets, even if the money is totally separate and legal. It’s inviting distrust of the tax collection apparatus.

Similarly, various regulations accompanied the public servants tasked with allocating and spending money from the Temple coffers on Temple goods: “When one entered to do the appropriation of the Chamber, they would search him at the entrance and the exit and they would converse with him from the time he entered until the time he exited, to full that which is said (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22), ‘then you shall be clean before YHWH and before Israel,” and it says (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:18, “And you shall do the upright and the good in the eyes of YHWH” (Tosefta, Shekalim 2:2). Because this public servant was searched thoroughly on the way in and out, no one can say that they pocketed any money for personal use from public funds. Because they were talking continuously, no one can suspect that they hid a piece of gold in their mouth. When the public sees this person shopping in the future, they can comfortably trust that this person did not get any kickbacks, any unfair leg up on the rest of them. A parallel text replaces the potentially humiliating and body-violating frisk with a standard dress code for this job (Mishna, Shekalim 3:2): “The one who made the appropriation may not enter the chamber wearing either a bordered cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet, lest if he became poor, people might say that he became poor because of a sin committed in the chamber, or if he became rich, people might say that he became rich from the appropriation in the chamber. For a person must be free of blame before people just as one must be free of blame before The Omnipresent, as it is said: ‘then you shall be clean [before YHWH and before Israel]’ (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:22), and it says: ‘And find favor and good consideration in the eyes of God and people’ (Proverbs 3:4).” 

Regulations to prevent criminal appropriation of public goods are not sufficient; regulations are imposed even to prevent any appearance of impropriety, to prevent people from jumping to incorrect conclusions. Why do the Rabbis praise public servants for abstaining from perfectly legal pleasures and impose restrictions on other public servants from otherwise perfectly legal, personal behavior? Why should honest people have to restrict their behavior because of mean-spirited, busybody gossips? After all, one of the earliest Rabbinic teachings, by Yehoshu‘a ben Perahia, is that we all “should judge every person as innocent” (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:6). The Torah itself commands that we “do not walk about tale bearing” or gossiping (Leviticus/VaYikra 19:16). If members of the public fabricate a suspicion that you have supplemented your income with tzedakah funds or Temple funds, why is that your problem? Aren’t they the sinner and shouldn’t they stand responsible? 

All of the teachings we have surveyed, elevating Moshe’s words in our parasha that we should strive to be blameless in the eyes not only of God but of fellow people, are directed toward public figures who are tasked with representing the public. That showbread and those incense offerings are on all of our behalf. It’s public tzedakah money and public tax dollars collected in the Temple coffers. A public servant entrusted with those public goods already derives special social benefit and power, a degree of celebrity, by having this distinguished position. No matter what police advocates will tell you, Jewish law recognizes that power accrued through public trust inevitably and maybe even rightfully comes with a measure of distrust and requires heightened public oversight and scrutiny. As a public figure, you can’t say that what you do is none of anyone’s business. It literally is their business. We have a responsibility to view people generously, but we also have a responsibility to maintain righteous and fair public institutions. When we’ve entrusted public officials with special access and power, those access and power bring invitations to corruption with them. We know that and we are implicated when they succumb while representing us. The value of judging others favorably still must take power dynamics into consideration. 

I’ll close with one last Rabbinic teaching that doesn’t quote our verse, but extends the sensibility beyond political power to the power attained through wealth. The Sages teach that if you make matzah into fancy, artisanal shapes and eat it on seder night, you have fulfilled your obligation. Nevertheless, you are not allowed to make matzah that way in the first place. A fabulously wealthy benefactor and student of the Rabbis named Baitos ben Zonin asked his teachers why not and they explained that you have to make matzah very quickly to prevent leavening and it’s just a bad idea to allow fancy shapes, because some people will take their time perfecting it and it will, God forbid, ferment and turn to hametz in the meantime. Baitos said, what if I use a mold, a stencil, which will take no time? The Sages answered that while this theoretically would address the problem, it’s still prohibited across the board, because “People would say that all shaped matzah has been prohibited, but Baitos’s shaped matzah has been permitted” (Talmud Bavli, Pesahim 37a). In theory, Baitos’s solution is available to everyone, but in practice, who has the money for fancy, niche artisanal tools? A rich person like Baitos. A just law cannot tolerate carve-outs that have the effect of enabling special rules and privileges for rich people. The resentful public will think that the access to the Rabbis Baitos had because he was rich enabled him to get Rabbinic laws waived. And in a way, they would be right. That can’t be tolerated. That is a recipe for eroding public trust. 

The upshot we learn from Moshe’s exhortation to the 2 ½ tribes is that in order for the Torah to be applied equally, as one Torah, one law, it sometimes has to be applied unequally: those with social power, through public office or wealth, will default to extra power and status, the “crown” of royalty, the crown of priesthood, the crown of wealth, even the crown of scholarship, so they must engage in extra restrictions to keep them in public check. The crown of a good name is greater than them all and reflects Divine grace because that good name is achieved through demonstrating that one’s public service is not a tool for amassing power and privilege, but is actually public service. 

Shabbat shalom.

Thank you to Akiva Mattenson for learning and thinking through these sources with me.

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