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November 29, 2015 / 17 Kislev, 5776
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Parshat Pikudei


General Martin Dempsey is the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s senior military officer and advisor to the president of the United States. Business consultant Ori Brafman in his book, The Chaos Imperative (2013), describes Dempsey as a very friendly and thoughtful person, well versed in English literature and the classics (p.1). Brafman, whose background is anything but military, was invited by Dempsey (prior to his assuming the chairmanship) to discuss ways of reenergizing the military bureaucracy. Brafman was quite impressed with the man he met.

In their initial meeting a wooden rectangular box, the size of a shoebox, on Dempsey’s table caught Brafman’s attention. Curious as to the nature of the box and its contents, Brafman asked Dempsey about it. Dempsey then proceeded to open the box and pull out what looked like a pile of baseball cards. However, instead of a picture of an athlete on each card there was a picture of a young man in uniform. Dempsey explained that these cards were “all the soldiers who died in action under my command” (p.4). Inscribed on the outside of the box was a simple three-word inscription: Make It Matter.

Dempsey was known for caring for his troops and every death weighed heavily on him. Unfortunately, a reality of war is that young soldiers die. While Dempsey did all he could to minimize casualties during the battles he commanded, his units inevitably suffered casualties. Thus the box. Dempsey wanted a daily visible reminder of his soldiers’ sacrifices so that he could do all within his power to ensure their deaths were not in vain. In this regard he kept a permanent account of the costs of war – costs that he would need to be cognizant of as the senior military advisor to the president.Hertzberg-022814-Duty

In a similar vein, former secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his recently published memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War (2014), underscores how he viewed taking care of the troops as his primary mission, and doing all that he could to minimize their casualties. To this end he also remained forever aware of the cost of war. In a very moving story, Gates relates how one evening while eating dinner in his hotel during his confirmation hearings, a woman came up to him and asked if he was Mr. Gates, the new secretary of defense. After he answered in the affirmative she congratulated him and then told him with tears in her eyes, “I have two sons in Iraq. For G-d’s sake, please bring them home alive” (p.12). According to Gates, it was at that moment that the wars became very real for him. It was now his job to win the wars and bring home alive as many soldiers as possible.

Like Dempsey and Gates, leaders must always be cognizant of the costs involved in their decisions – even when the costs are less than human life. Only by so doing can they ensure that their decisions are executed in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Decisions that escape cost oversight and evaluation, might ultimately lead to failure even if they initially seem successful. I believe this is why Moshe felt it critical to provide an accounting of the Mishkan’s expenditures at the beginning of this week’s parsha.

Classic commentators explain that Moshe’s motivation was to dispel any notion in the minds of people that a single donation was misappropriated. The Midrash points out that the scoffers, the Eirav Rav, were casting aspersions on Moshe’s character claiming that he became wealthy by embezzling the Temple funds. By presenting an exact accounting of every expense Moshe clearly demonstrated that he was beyond reproach.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.

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