These are the reckonings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of testimony, which were reckoned at Moshe’s request. – Shemos 38:21
Parshas Pikudei begins with a detailed accounting of all of the gold and silver that was collected for the Mishkan. A cursory reading would lead us to assume that while of course a man as great as Moshe was above question, he must have asked for this calculation because public leaders must remove any suspicion no matter how farfetched.
However, the Baalei Tosfos explain things a bit differently. It seems Moshe was in fact suspected of stealing money from the Mishkan. There were 16 Shekalim that were unaccounted for, and Moshe was suspected of having taken them. Therefore, Moshe asked for a formal accounting to remove the suspicion. At which point it was discovered that those 16 Shekalim were actually used in the construction of the hooks of the Mishkan.
The difficulty with this Baalei HaTosfos is understanding how anyone would suspect that Moshe Rabbeinu of stealing. The Mishkan was to be the dwelling place of Hashem on this earth. Monies that were separated for the Mishkan were consecrated and holy. How could anyone suspect Moshe of pilfering those monies? Even more perplexing is that these people knew who Moshe Rabbeinu was. They saw him go up to receive the Torah. They heard the sound of Hashem’s voice speaking through him. From the time he came down from Har Sinai his face shone like the sun. They understood him to be the greatest human ever created. How is it possible that they suspected him of petty thievery?
This question becomes even more difficult when we take into account the circumstances of those times. This was the generation of the midbar – all their daily needs were taken care of. They ate manna that fell from the heavens, drank water from a huge rock that followed them through the desert, etc. – in short, all their needs were taken care of. Their entire focus and occupation was to grow in learning and Yiras Shamayim. It was the ultimate kollel community. If so, what possible motivation would Moshe have to steal the Shekalim?
The answer to this question is based on perspective.
The story is told that one day a poor man came to the Chofetz Chaim’s door asking for tzedakah. The Chofetz Chaim invited him in, and offered him a full meal. When the man was finished eating he left. As the Chofetz Chaim was cleaning up, he realized this man had stolen a spoon. The Chofetz Chaim ran into the street after him calling, “Wait, wait, don’t forget the spoon is fleishig.”
While this is a beautiful illustration of the giving nature of a tzaddik, there is as subtle message here: the man stole a spoon from the Chofetz Chaim. How was that possible? The Chofetz Chaim! The revered sage. The teacher of generations. Can we imagine anyone today being lowly enough to steal something from such a holy man?
The answer is that no one today would act that way to the Chofetz Chaim because we have an appreciation of who the man was. But in his generation they didn’t. That stature was something he acquired long after he died. For most of his life, he was viewed as a regular man – maybe a talmid chacham, but nothing extraordinary. And even when the world began hearing of the Chofetz Chaim, it wasn’t as some huge, towering, historic figure. A gadol maybe, but not someone who would shape history.
This seems to be a quirk in human nature. When we live in proximity to greatness it is hard to appreciate the size of the man and we tend to minimize the magnitude. It is far easier to lump him together with other people of the generation and assume he can’t be that much greater.
This seems to be the answer. While the people living at the time of Moshe Rabbeinu knew of his greatness, they still viewed him as a man of their generation. Granted, he went up to the heavens and received the Torah, but he was a human being like everyone else, so who is to say he didn’t just pocket some of the Shekalim? While later generations wouldn’t in their wildest dreams suspect such a man, to those living in the times, such historical perspective wasn’t there, and they couldn’t see him for the lofty giant he was.
This concept has particular relevance to us as we look at the leaders of our generation and say, “Where are the gedolim today”? But we aren’t the first to utter that cry; it has been expressed by every generation since Har Sinai, and will continue through the generations. What we see from the Baalei Tosfos is that this sentiment was expressed even with regard to Moshe.