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My Son, the Accountant

These are the numbers of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, which were counted at Moses’ command; [this was] the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen. [Exodus 38:21]

He’s hardly mentioned by himself in the Torah. When he’s seen, it’s almost always with his older brother Elazar.

But G-d gave Ithamar, the son of Aaron, one job that would define the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. Ithamar was the accountant of the divine building project. He kept track of all the donations, the gold silver, copper. Then, he allocated the metals, animal skins, fiber and others for specific tasks. He also was comptroller, making sure none of the material went missing.

You could say this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is Ithamar’s handiwork. Every element of the Mishkan is enumerated and accounted for. Ithamar might not have been the apparent equal of Elazar, Aaron’s successor as High Priest, or his brilliant architect cousin, Bezalel. But this young man knew his numbers — without a Mac, mainframe or even a mechanical calculator.

It’s hard to imagine anyone swooning over Ithamar — “Oyy, my son is such a genius.” He was the youngest of four children, and his elder siblings all seemed to have received more important jobs — not to mention bigger offices. But his efforts imbued the Mishkan with a divine spirit that was largely absent in the first or second temples.

When you think about it numbers are essentially meaningless. Mark Twain said this some 150 years ago: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Like lies, the value of numbers undergoes constant inflation. Until 1948, a nickel could get you on a subway from one end of New York to the other. Today, the basic fare is $250. A few years ago, a millionaire was king. Today, just about anybody is a millionaire, and you need to be a billionaire to be courted. Once, a basketball star was somebody who scored 20 points. Today, nothing less than 50 will do.

The Mishkan’s numbers were worthy of being recorded in the Torah because they served G-d. And Ithamar served G-d by making sure that the ones who built, maintained and transported the Mishkan were Levites. Not foreign workers. Not even Jews from other tribes. Centuries later, King David asked the question: Is G-d’s dwelling a matter of finding the right professionals, or does it require people with the highest level of good deeds? Can anyone walk into His domain as long as he paid his entrance fee?

Lord, who may dwell in your tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? One who walks uprightly and works righteousness. Who speaks truth from his heart. [Psalms 15:1-2]

The Italian medieval commentator Ovadiah Ben Jacob Sforno notes the three buildings that served as G-d’s domicile. The Mishkan in the Sinai Desert was by far the greatest. From the start, it was infused with the divine presence and despite numerous wars never fell into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

Not so, the First Temple built by King Solomon. Unlike Ithamar, Solomon looked abroad, employing the leading craftsmen as well as thousands of laborers from Tyre. The temple contained the divine presence but fell to the enemy and was destroyed. Before the destruction, the temple underwent decades of humiliation and pillage, much of it by the kings of Judea.

The Second Temple suffered an even worst fate. This building did not contain the divine presence and was sponsored by the Persian king Cyrus. Like Shlomo’s temple, this one was built by laborers from Tyre and Sidon.

It would have been the easiest thing for Ithamar to suggest that the Levites obtain help in constructing the Mishkan. And who better than the Egyptians who followed Israel into the desert and converted to Judaism. Some of them were probably foremen in building the pyramids and cities that still amaze mankind today.

But Ithamar was living the truth of Israel. This is a people that stand alone. They don’t seek help in developing a nation and certainly in building G-d’s house. They don’t need NATO, the European Union or the United States. Their sole ally is the Almighty.

Nathan Sternharz was a leading disciple of the hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslev. In 1805, Nathan began what turned out to be a nearly 40-year effort to write a responsa on Torah law in the spirit of his teacher. His work, based on Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulhan Aruch of some 250 year earlier, was seen as subversive — first by Jews who objected to Hasidism and then by the Russian authorities who opposed anything Jewish. Many of his manuscripts were lost or confiscated.

Nathan’s responsa is replete with calls to serve G-d with love. He admonishes the greedy and the false. In one section, the disciple of Breslev shows the desperate how to escape even the most hopeless of circumstances. Ithamar, the numbers cruncher, would have nodded.

The escape from darkness is through the truth. The main thing is to speak truth that he takes from his heart. Because the heart of the Israeli burns and always desires the Almighty, and always understands truth, and must speak with his mouth the truth in his heart. And certainly G-d will shine the light [for man] to find openings in the surrounding darkness for him to exit. [Lekutei Halochot.Theft 5:21]

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.