SPOILER ALERT: I will be incorporating this material into my remarks during Shabbat morning services this weekend.
Fresh off of all the excitement surrounding last weekend's Oscars ceremony, I keep coming back to this snippet of an article that I read in Newsweek a few weeks ago, in the run-up to this year's Academy Awards. The article describes the "behind the scenes" logistics of how the ballots are counted. (You can also watch a related ABC News video about the ballot counters here.)
What I was so struck by, especially in the article, is the sense of TRANSPARENCY that exists within the different stages of the counting. For all of the secrecy of the process (undisclosed location, room with no windows), there are certain basic safeguards that Price Waterhouse (the accounting firm) has put into place to insure that the ballots are counted in as honest and accurate a way as possible.
In the first stage of the counting, all of the ballots are divvied up into four equal piles. Four separate accountants tabulate their own piles. BUT THESE ACCOUNTANTS ARE NOT PRIVY TO THE RESULTS OF THE OTHER THREE! Each one hands in their ballots and a tabulated result summary sheet to two official ballot counting supervisors (the two people that actually walk down the red carpet on the day of the ceremony, and stand backstage with the official envelopes). These two add up the results of the four individual counters.
It's so ethically significant that the two of them are involved in this process together. Each one looking over the shoulder of the other to make sure that everything is 'above board.' Finally, on the night of the ceremony, each one carries a duplicate briefcase filled with duplicate envelopes.....so that - even if one of them tries to pull some kind of funny business at the last minute (perhaps by accepting a bribe from an actor or studio head), the other one can step in and try to correct the confusion by insisting that the correct/proper award winner be announced.
That kind of transparency - the notion that ethically, steps should be taken to communicate to the public/community that everyone/everything is 'above board' - is celebrated and exemplified in this week's Torah portion, (a double portion: Parshat Vayakehil-Pekudei).
The latter chapters of the Book of Exodus deal with the minutiae - not only of the building of the Tent of Meeting (the transportable structure that our ancestors used to encounter God in during their 40 year journey through the desert) - but also with all of the details surrounding the fundraising for the Tent. (The building of the Tent was a major undertaking, requiring the donation of all sorts of supplies, plus the donation of substantial amounts of gold and silver).
Thus our rabbis celebrate the profound significance of the fact that the final section of Exodus has Moses deliver a detailed accounting of all the money and valuables that were donated. How much was there? Where was it spent? How can the community see the tangible results of their donations? It is all laid out in our Torah portion.
There is no question, in my mind, that the Torah is encouraging us to emulate Moses' behavior. The question is - in what ways can we achieve a greater sense of transparency in the communities we are a part of, and the lives that we individually live?
On a communal - or societal level - transparency is a Jewish value that we should bring to bear on how our government does its business.
Given that we are in the run up to tax season, now is the time that we should be thinking about HOW THE GOVERNMENT SPENDS OUR MONEY. Is it spent responsibly? The only way that we will ever know if it is is if the government adopts a greater sense of transparency to its records, and to the way it does business.
There have been plenty of non-profit organizations in the last few decades who have devoted themselves to this cause. Check out websites like www.sunshinereview.org (advocating for transparency in state and local governments) or www.sunlightfoundation.com (advocating for transparency of our federal government). Both of these organizations are non-partisan, with one goal: to push our government to be less secretive, and more forthcoming about the way that it handles our money, and does business.
(Note how pro-transparency orgs like to use the image of the sun...letting the sun shine in to show the 'true nature' of the way that our elected leaders do business.)
Just for the fun of it, here is Coldplay's rendition of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun":
More interesting is the recent development that has taken place on the national political stage, where Democrats and Republicans have sought to portray themselves as more transparent than the other.
Two quick examples of how the Obama Administration has responded to this new value in Washington:
1) www.recovery.gov - This is the website that the Administration set up (the website was actually mandated in the legislation) to transparently reveal where every single dollar of the massive economic stimulus package that Congress passed last February. FYI, some have suggested that the government is doing a shoddy job of being transparent with this information. www.recovery.org seeks to be a more accurate assessment of the spending.
2) The newfound bipartisan spirit of transparency: evidenced by the House Republicans' invitation to have President Obama debate their caucus live on television, followed by the President's own invitation to Congressional leaders of both parties to gather together for a televised health care summit. Although it is sad that neither gathering has produced bipartisan legislation, at least we can applaud the leaders of both parties for their willingness to engage in important discussions with one another on camera...giving the people more access (more sunshine, if you will) to the inner workings of our government.
Even as our Jewish values would encourage us to advocate for greater transparency in government, it's also important to point out that transparency is a value that you and I can practice on an individual level as well.
Take a step back for a moment, and reflect on how transparent of a life you live.
Are you the kind of person that often keeps secrets (or hides the truth) from close friends and family members?
In your professional life, are you the kind of person that reacts negatively if a co-worker or supervisor inquires as to what your thought process was, in connection with a project?
Transparency is a huge component when it comes to establishing our own reputations. People will come to trust us, and think highly of us, if they have the sense that "what they see is what they get" - that the person that they're dealing with is real, authentic, and honest.
(Check out this posting by a corporate executive who believes that Twittering can make us all more honest and transparent people!)
Our rabbis, upon reflecting on Moses' tremendous sense of transparency in this week's Torah portion, commented that: "To acquire a good name like that of Moses is better than all of the wealth of the world."
None of us may be weighed down with the job and responsibility of honestly counting the ballots for the Academy Awards. That does not lessen our Jewish obligation to be as transparent as we can be in our personal lives. Nor does it affect our responsibility to seek that sense of transparency from our leaders in Washington.