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What Does it Mean to Be Personally Accountable?

Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38 )

by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

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Accountability is crucial for any high-functioning society - and for any high-functioning human being.

From a societal perspective, those in positions of power and responsibility are expected to be accountable to the people they serve, and not to advance their personal interests at the expense of the greater good. And, at the level of the individual, accountability is particularly powerful. Personal accountability builds trust, improves performance, promotes responsibility and inspires confidence.

When you are accountable to someone or a group of people for doing what you said you would do, you engage the power of social expectations and achieve things you wouldn't otherwise achieve.

This week's parsha, Pekudei, deals with a powerful act of personal accountability on the part of Moses (Moshe). The parsha begins: "These are the accounts of the Mishkan which were accounted through the instruction of Moshe."

We know that after God issued the instructions for building the Mishkan, Moshe embarked on an extensive collection campaign. The materials required to assemble the Mishkan were considerable - gold, silver, bronze and all kinds of valuable materials were needed. Yet Moshe's campaign was enormously successful, to the point where people had to be actively told to stop bringing their donations.

Parsha Pekudei goes on to record Moshe's detailed account of all the funds that he collected - an itemised register of all the various materials that were donated, their quantities, and how they were used in the construction of the Mishkan. In addition, Midrash Tanchuma makes the point that even though a person as great as Moses was beyond suspicion, nevertheless it was necessary for him to give a full account to the people. This set a standard of accountability and transparency for all future generations of leaders to follow. In fact, the Code of Jewish Law sets out a number of transparency and accountability measures governing the collection of tzedakah, and the Vilna Gaon cites Moshes' example as the precedent for these laws.

But the Torah's principles governing the misappropriation of resources don't only apply to those involved in public service. There are lessons here that are relevant to every one of us in our personal lives. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein says that just as Moshe had given an account to the people for how the money was spent, so too do each of us have to give an account to God for all of the blessings He gives us.

We all enjoy countless blessings, whether it's good health, material resources, loving families, a roof over our heads, unique talents and abilities, or even simply the gift of time - of life itself. The question is, what do we do with these gifts God has given us? Do we use them to serve our own ends, to seek personal gratification and earthly pleasures? Or do we use them as God intended - to fulfil His commandments, to help others, to make the world a better place?

A crucial dimension of accountability before God is acknowledging when we have made mistakes and when we have done wrong. This is what the mitzvah of what teshuva - repentance - is all about. The Rambam, in his Laws of Repentance, defines the process of repentance and sets out its various components: regretting the mistakes of the past, desisting from that wrongdoing in the present, and resolving not to return to this course of action in the future - and then confessing before our Creator.

This fourfold process of teshuva is an immersive journey of personal responsibility and accountability. But at its heart, the mitzvah of teshuva is also intensely creative. It is, in fact, the most vivid and powerful manifestation of our role as God's partners in creation. For what we are doing through teshuva is recreating the self.

Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (On Repentance - The relationship between repentance and free choice) explains that there are two kinds of teshuva. He draws this out from the structure of the Rambam's Laws of Repentance. The Rambam discusses these laws in the first four chapters. Then, in chapters five and six there is a curious digression in which he discusses the principle of free choice - before returning to the subject of repentance in chapter seven, in which he writes poetically and beautifully about teshuva and its transformational and spiritual mechanics.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that this unusual structure is in fact a comment on the central importance free will plays in driving transformational teshuva. Sometimes repentance can be driven by factors such as fear or guilt, or adverse circumstances. This repentance certainly takes effect, but its impact is more muted. There's a reluctance, a reactivity, that holds back teshuva's true transformative power. On the other hand, teshuva that is driven by free will - in the sense of a deep, internal desire to change proactively - becomes truly transformational.

Rav Soloveitchik further explains that this higher level of transformational repentance needs to address not just one's specific negative actions, but the character traits and worldview in which those actions are rooted. Doing so leads to the complete recreation of the personality, and this is the transformational repentance described so poetically by the Rambam in chapter seven. The more prosaic repentance is described in the first four chapters.

Teshuva is an extraordinary gift. Literally "to return", real teshuva is to change the past and return to a state of innocence. If we come before God openly and honestly, and make a full account of our mistakes; if we regret them, and resolve to correct them and demonstrate that our desire to improve ourselves is real, then we actually emerge from that as new people - as if the past is erased.

The Talmud (Yuma 86b) says that if we repent out of fear then we rectify the deeds of the past and are absolved of our misdeeds. But we can go even further. The Talmud continues that if we do teshuva out of love of God - the highest and purest motivation - we retroactively transform the wrongdoings of the past into mitzvot and merit!

This is the incredible creative power of teshuva, which is truly a gift from God. It gives us the opportunity to change the past and recreate our present and future selves.

The Talmud further states that teshuva brings redemption to the world. It is the ultimate act of creativity. It is a supernatural force, and when we exercise it, we become God-like in our creativity. The Midrash says that God created many worlds and destroyed them before He finally created this world. Rav Soloveitchik learns from this Midrash the imperative to emulate God in this very respect. As we live our lives, we make mistakes, we create "worlds" that shouldn't have been brought into existence. But we have the ability, and the responsibility, to recreate. And if we do it right, we can even raise something pristine and beautiful from the ruins. We can transform the very foundations of our existence.

Ultimately, this is what true accountability means. Being responsible for the lives we have built for ourselves, acknowledging our missteps, and resolving to transform those misdeeds, is the ultimate creative act.

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