Guarding The Public Trust

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

Though the Torah is, by anyone’s definition, an ancient document, its “cast of characters,” if you will, often portray sensitivities that are strikingly relevant to contemporary concerns. One area in particular in which this is evident is in the responsibility of those in leadership positions to be worthy of the trust that others put in them, particularly with regard to fiduciary duty.

In Chapter 14 of Genesis, the king of Sodom offers Abraham a generous portion of the spoils of a successful joint military battle, but Abraham refuses the offer. He will accept only the replacement of that which was expended in the war. The reason he gives is telling. Whether from near or far, Abraham wants no one to assume that he profited at the expense of others. V’lo tomar, ani he’esharti et Avram; Let no one say, “I made Abraham rich.

In a similar vein, at the conclusion of the Book of Exodus, Moses provides an exhaustive, detail by detail accounting of how every bit of precious material that had been collected for the construction of the Mishkan– the portable sanctuary in the desert- had been used. The repetition is stunning. Every last item that had been enumerated in the collection phase of the building campaign is accounted for, and in a Torah noted for its terseness, it begs the question of why.

Later Rabbinic commentary in the Midrash provides an answer. Moses had heard Israelites gossiping about the fullness of his thighs and the girth of his neck. The implication was that he seemed to be living too well– better than the average Israelite– and must have been skimming off the top of the donations for the Mishkan.

Moses would have none of it. He was incensed by the insinuation, and insisted that every last bit of precious metal and fabric be accounted for. And it was.

Though the presenting issue is not identical to the Biblical concerns just noted, the current scandal over the apparent politicization of America’s Internal Revenue Service does indeed go to the core issue of Abraham’s and Moses’ deepest concern: fiduciary responsibility, and the integrity of the public trust. As a leader, you must do everything in your power to earn the trust of those you lead. And once you earn it, you must do everything in your power not to lose it.

There is no governmental agency more needing of the public trust than the Internal Revenue Service, which collects our taxes and sees to their proper use. No one that I know pays taxes because they want to. They pay taxes because they have to, and because the governmental services that taxes make possible are essential to the functioning of our democracy. One might differ, as Democrats and Republicans do, about more or less taxes, or more or less government, but at their core, taxes are the grease that enables the machinery of government to function.

In a strictly fiduciary sense, the possibility that taxpayer money was used to finance lavish IRS conferences and getaways, as has recently been suggested, is patently offensive to me. I’m sure it is to you as well. I remember all too clearly how disturbing it was to find out in the mid-1980’s that monies we had paid for parking tickets here in the Borough of Queens- many of which we thought were not deserved- had been kicked back into then Borough President Donald Manes’ pockets, and those of his cronies. It felt like a personal insult, like we were the victims of those whom we had elected to serve us. If IRS bureaucrats were using our tax money to finance their weekend junkets, then they are no better than Manes, who was, despite his political power, little more than a common crook.

But the larger issue arising from recent revelations, that the IRS initiated one-sided and partisan investigations of perceived right-of-center not- for-profits sympathetic to the Tea Party, goes way beyond any one person’s sense of being offended. It speaks directly to the issue of public trust. The power that the IRS wields is enormous, and the havoc that it can wreak, whether with a company or corporation or an individual, has the potential to be life altering.

Whether Democrat or Republican, the alleged politicization of the IRS can only be understood as a violation of the public trust that will be difficult to repair. It conjures up the worst kind of memories of the Watergate era, which is particularly unfortunate because it is fundamentally different. No one, at least for now, believes that the IRS functionaries who took it upon themselves to make life difficult for the Tea Party and its supporters did so at the behest of the White House, which was exactly what happened during the Nixon presidency. There was no “enemies list,” and no conspiracy that was being directed from the Oval Office.

But the real betrayal of trust here is that the renegade IRS officials who engaged in this behavior have made 2013 look and smell like the early 1970’s. They have given the Tea Party a rationale for its paranoia about government, and in so doing, emboldened them. We could all have lived without this….

And speaking of betrayals of the public trust, guess whom we read about this coming Shabbat in synagogue? None other than Korach, the very paradigm of the political provocateur. Masking his own self-interest in a populist message, Korach brings ruination upon himself and his followers, and causes grievous harm to the fabric of the Israelite community– not to mention to Moses’ leadership.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.