What MPs could learn from Moses's donkey

The Bible could teach politicians a thing or two about honest expense claims.

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, June 24, 2010
Protesters created this large mock-up of a duck house — representing the one for which ex-Tory MP Sir Peter Viggers notoriously claimed expenses

Protesters created this large mock-up of a duck house — representing the one for which ex-Tory MP Sir Peter Viggers notoriously claimed expenses

Politicians frequently complain about being constantly under the spotlight and the unending public scrutiny of some of their lives. Apparently, little has changed since biblical times. According to the Midrash, Moses protested that when he spent time in his tent, people accused him of neglecting his national responsibilities, but when he left home to spend long hours teaching, judging and leading the nation, rumours circulated about the state of his marriage. His high profile in the camp also led to terrible suspicion and jealousy: "and all the men suspected Moses of committing adultery with their wives" (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 8: 20).

Moses felt most under attack about his finances. When the rebels in the desert accused their leader of lording it over them, his immediate reaction was to present his accounts: "I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them" (Numbers16: 15).

Why the focus on donkeys? The Midrash searches for a connection with Moses and suggests that Moses was referring to the donkey journey that he made from Midian to Egypt in order to commence his public service. The prophet could legitimately have charged this to his expense account, but did not, preferring to cover the costs himself.

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1893) argues that Moses was explaining that whereas other leaders dug into the public coffers to aggrandise themselves with stables full of horses and to look after their domestic needs by providing donkeys for their servants, he did not even take a single donkey for himself. This, the Netziv suggests, was a sign of his modest style of leadership, which should be the hallmark of all Jewish leaders.

Many of our current political leaders declare that their parties will be "squeaky clean" and call for "zero-tolerance" of corruption. These aspirations follow the example of Moses and the other prophets who showed exemplary integrity. But even these righteous biblical figures sometimes found themselves compromised by unscrupulous partners and assistants.

Samuel spent his childhood among priests who pilfered meat from sacrifices

The prophet Samuel spent his childhood among corrupt priests who womanised and pilfered meat from the sacrifices. Towards the end of his life, he delivered a magnificent speech in which, echoing the words of Moses, he declared how he always worked with absolute integrity, challenging anyone to argue otherwise: "Whose ox have I taken or whose ass have I taken or whom have I defrauded or oppressed?" (I Samuel 12: 3-4). Once again, the Midrash is at pains to point out that not only has he not taken anything which did not belong to him, but also that he had not made the slightest unfair claim on his expenses.

When Elisha the prophet miraculously cured an Aramean general of leprosy, the wealthy patient offered him a handsome reward. It was a time of crippling poverty in Israel, so Elisha would certainly have been justified in accepting some recompense for his services, if only to redistribute to the poor. But the prophet had other concerns. He wished to stress the miraculous nature of the healing, so he refused any compensation.

This selflessness won him the respect and admiration of the general who consequently abandoned idolatry, pledging his loyalty to the one true God. But in an ancient equivalent of what the Prime Minister described as the "far-too-cosy relationship between big business and politicians", Elisha's servant Gehazi dashed after the wealthy general, fabricated a story about two new, needy students and pocketed a substantial contribution (II Kings 5).

Elisha was disgusted by his servant's behaviour. He exposed the young man's unscrupulous efforts to acquire "garments, olive yards and vineyards, sheep, oxen, maidservants and man servants" - the ancient equivalent of the maintenance bills for duck houses and moat cleaning for which some of our MPs have claimed. When Gehazi denied all knowledge, Elisha struck his servant with leprosy. Worse was to follow: according to the Mishnah, Gehazi was also punished with a loss of his share in the world to come.

Was Gehazi's punishment too harsh? In Britain, there has been some sympathy for those politicians who became entangled in scandals without actually intending to defraud anyone. Gehazi's crime was premeditated; nevertheless, the Talmud debates whether his punishment was disproportionate.

The Ralbag (Gersonides 1288-1344) in his commentary suggests that had Gehazi immediately apologised, he could simply have confessed his crime, reimbursed the Aramean general and been spared such a harsh punishment. But Gehazi was not sufficiently ethically developed; his lies compounded his crime, leading to the stringent punishment.

Perhaps Abraham, the first Jew, should be our model for approaching these questions of integrity. After one of his battles to rescue his nephew, he was offered a share of the spoils, but despite pressure from a local ruler to accept, Abraham was adamant that he would not take anything for himself; he would not touch any of the bounty "from a thread to a shoelace". The Talmud teaches that as a reward for his words and his exceptionally high moral standards, Abraham's descendants were given the mitzvot of the threads of the tzitzit and the straps of the tefillin.

It seems strange that an act of outstanding honesty should be met with further ritual obligations. If anything, we would expect Abraham's elevated ethical standards and consequent spiritual achievements to lead to a relaxing of the law. But our rabbis were teaching us that at the heart of our religion is the need to maintain the highest level of integrity and this demands constant vigilance. The reward for outstanding moral conduct is a further symbolic reminder of God, which should help us to strengthen our resolve to build a more ethical world.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue’s Tribe Israel

Last updated: 12:01pm, June 24 2010