Honesty and Morality Can Save the Jewish People

“And though he does tarry, I await his coming very day”.

Why does the Messiah tarry so long?

Rashi, at the beginning of Parshat Pikudei, tells us that the Torah repeats the phrase “the tabernacle” to allude to the future destruction of the two Holy Temples as a result of the Jewish people’s sins. Why is punishment exacted vicariously through the Temple, rather than directly from the Jewish people?

In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik,

“If one keeps the Sabbath but eats non-kosher food, the merit of keeping the Sabbath is not taken away from him. If one wears tefillin but not tzitzis, the mitzvah of tefillin is unaffected. By committing a sin, one generally does not lose the reward for keeping another mitzvah. This relationship changes, however, when it comes to the Beis Hamikdash. If the community sheds blood, practices injustice, or robs, the Beis Hamikdash loses its sanctity and becomes destroyed. The Beis Hamikdash is the collateral.”

What emerges is that the Temple is unique from other commandments. Its very structure describes an intimacy in our relationship with Hashem that depends on highly refined behavioral standards. If we fail to meet those standards, the Temple is taken away.

Notice the sins that Rabbi Soloveitchik highlights. “If the community sheds blood, practices injustice, or robs”

Traditionally, we have learned that the first Temple was destroyed because of sexual immorality, bloodshed and  idolatry, and the fate of the second Temple was sealed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Nevertheless, the Rav omits sexual immorality and idolatry, and chooses to attribute the destruction of the Temples to instances where “the community sheds blood, practices injustice, or robs”

While surprising, this diction actually parallels that of the Bible, which points to one basic reason for the churban:

Injustice — robbery, theft, fraud, lying and hypocrisy.

Hear for example the words of the Prophet Micah (Chapter 3)

י  בֹּנֶה צִיּוֹן, בְּדָמִים; וִירוּשָׁלִַם, בְּעַוְלָה.

10 That build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity.

יא רָאשֶׁיהָ בְּשֹׁחַד יִשְׁפֹּטוּ, וְכֹהֲנֶיהָ בִּמְחִיר יוֹרוּ, וּנְבִיאֶיהָ, בְּכֶסֶף יִקְסֹמוּ; וְעַל-יְהוָה, יִשָּׁעֵנוּ לֵאמֹר, הֲלוֹא יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, לֹא-תָבוֹא עָלֵינוּ רָעָה.

11 The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money; yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say: ‘Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us’?

יב לָכֵן, בִּגְלַלְכֶם, צִיּוֹן, שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁ; וִירוּשָׁלִַם עִיִּין תִּהְיֶה, וְהַר הַבַּיִת לְבָמוֹת יָעַר. {פ}

12 Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest.

And again, the Prophet Jeremiah (chapter 22)

ג כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, עֲשׂוּ מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה, וְהַצִּילוּ גָזוּל, מִיַּד עָשׁוֹק; וְגֵר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה אַל-תֹּנוּ, אַל-תַּחְמֹסוּ, וְדָם נָקִי, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.

3 Thus saith the LORD: Execute ye justice and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.

And if not —

ה וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ, אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה–בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם-יְהוָה, כִּי-לְחָרְבָּה יִהְיֶה הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה.  {פ}

5 But if ye will not hear these words, I swear by Myself, saith the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.

Among the most astonishing claims of the Hebrew Bible is this:

G-d may make many demands on us. Nevertheless, His presence in our lives, our ability to be close to Him, to live in the promised land, to see the Messiah, and to build the Holy Temple are contingent on our personal morality.

If we cheat, lie, or steal then we are banished and our Temple is destroyed.

Rashi’s insistence that the opening verse of our Parsha hints at the possible destruction of the temple harmonizes perfectly with the broader text.

The Jewish people have donated gold, silver, copper and jewellery to build the Mishkan. And now Moshe renders an account of every penny spent – how much gold, how much silver. He teaches us that nobody is too holy to be beyond financial temptation. That honesty is demanded of every single one of us.

And from the day the Mishkan was built, its existence — our existence — has been dependent on our personal morality, in particular our financial morality.

Friends, next year will be 50 years since the Six Day War.  For many of us that’s unimaginably distant, for many others its living memories. But I remember a time when people were convinced — convinced — that the Geulah, the redemption was at hand, that the Messiah was imminent.

And of course we all continue to hope and pray for that. But for people who had seen the Shoah and then the Six Day War, for people who remembered the chokehold on the infant State of Israel, the imminent sense of doom, followed by the open miracles of “Har Babayit Biyadenu — The Temple Mount is in our hands,” there is a question too terrible to be asked.

What happened? Is everything still on track? Why have 50 years passed and still the Hope of Redemption has not been realized.

And as we wait and we wait, it occurs to us that Hashem may still want more from us, that we are not yet worthy, we have to remember the most basic lesson of the Bible. We need to be honest. We need to act with justice and integrity in every area of our lives.

And I am not just speaking about or to religious Jews. Every couple of years a Jewish philanthropist will launch a competition to find the next Big Jewish Idea. To find what it is that can speak to today’s secular, lost Jewish generation.

Sadly, the reality of today’s Jewish world is that we do not all agree about Israel. Religious ritual certainly does not unite us.

What is it that can unite the Jewish people, from religious to secular, Israel to the Diaspora?

Perhaps, all along, the answer has been in front of our eyes. It is the national mission of the Jewish people to live lives of personal rectitude. To be famous – to be ridiculously famous – for trustworthiness and honesty. Imagine a political candidate of any party who says I want – not “guys in yarmulkes counting my money”, but “guys in yarmulkes guarding my money.”

Imagine an investment opportunity, somewhere in America, and the pitch is “and not only does it have great returns, but the men and women involved are Orthodox Jews! That’s how trustworthy it is.”

After so many scandals that have shamed us all, and after this most important lesson has been so completely erased from our hearts, the task of our generation is to reinstill this message of personal rectitude and faith that G-d will enable scrupulously honest people to prosper.

Such a task is daunting.

We know that even today to keep Shabbat is heroic. For young people starting their careers Shabbat can be very challenging. Similarly, keeping kosher can involve significant difficulties. But every single person, regardless of who we are, is tested in the area of personal honesty.

We have become a materialistic orthodoxy. Its no surprise. The financial burden on all of us, especially those of us paying tuition, is unbelievable. But as Rabbi  Soloveitchik illustrates, when we fail in this area the consequences are catastrophic.

Every Jew who is scrupulously honest, doesn’t take advantage of people, doesn’t go back on their world, doesn’t scam or cheat, pays taxes, regards dishonesty as more repugnant than eating pork – that is the kind of Jew  who can help bring the Redemption.

A Jew, alone in an office at night, facing a moment of tremendous temptation, or in countless other ways in business or daily interactions, and she does the right thing – that person is a contemporary Jewish hero.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, our founding rabbi, tells of the time he was interviewing candidates to be principal of his new high school. There were a number of equally qualified candidates. It was a difficult choice. So he asked each one in turn “What would you do if you paid for an electric shaver from a store. And when it was delivered, they accidentally delivered two, but only charged you for one?” Two candidates equivocated. One, without hesitation, said that he would return the extra shaver to the store. He is the one that Rabbi Riskin appointed.

If we can aspire to greatness in this area of our lives, then, please G-d we can look forward to the fulfillment of so many of His promises to us – as the prophet Isaiah (chapter one) tells us

כו וְאָשִׁיבָה שֹׁפְטַיִךְ כְּבָרִאשֹׁנָה, וְיֹעֲצַיִךְ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה; אַחֲרֵי-כֵן, יִקָּרֵא לָךְ עִיר הַצֶּדֶק–קִרְיָה, נֶאֱמָנָה.

26 And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning; afterward thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.

כז צִיּוֹן, בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה; וְשָׁבֶיהָ, בִּצְדָקָה.

27 Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.


About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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