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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.

(As an aside, Chazal point out that we derive a very interesting insight into human nature from this episode. When it came to the Golden Calf, despite the fact that only a little calf was produced from all the gold collected, nobody questioned where the money went. However, when it came to the Mishkan, despite the fact that a large edifice was erected, with many vessels, people demanded an accounting – down to the last penny. This phenomenon clearly demonstrates that when it comes to bad things people don’t question. However, when it comes to mitzvot, people suddenly need to know every detail.

Rav Zalman Sorotskin in his commentary Oznaim LaTorah puts a positive slant on this notion. When it comes to supporting an ignoble cause, people don’t want an accounting as they can assuage their conscience by thinking that their money may just be sitting in the bank or going to something insignificant.  But when it comes to a noble cause, people want to be assured that they too have a part in the mitzvah.

Rav Moshe Feinstein ztl posits that Moshe is teaching us the importance of making an accounting of how we use everything G-d gives us, not just the donations to the Mishkan. The Torah is not simply describing to us something Moshe did as a one-time expedient, but rather it is instructing us in what to do with everything we have and everything we do. We must constantly ask ourselves whether we are using our possessions, our knowledge and our talents for good and for the furtherance of Torah, or G-d forbid for the opposite. Only by making constant accountings can we be certain that we are doing the right thing in the right way.

In this sense, like General Dempsey, leaders must have their own boxes where they keep track of the costs involved in what they do. They must continuously bear in mind the costs of their decisions and make sure that their decisions are worth the costs. Only by doing so will they be able to make it matter. Perhaps the underlying lesson of Parshat Pikudei is that the real targeted audience of such accountings is not a leader’s followers but the leader himself.

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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