Parshat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
This we week read Parshat Ki Tisa. Sure, I could focus on something interesting, like the Golden Calf or the Second Set of Tablets or even the 13 Attributes Of God, but that’s way too easy. Why not the census and poll tax? It is seemingly boring compared with the other topics: “And God spoke to Moses saying, ‘When you take a census of the people, each shall pay a half-shekel to God.’” So what? 4,000-year-old taxes. But this was something special. For our Torah continues: “Everyone who is 20 years old and above shall pay. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less.” Everyone pays, the rich and the poor. And this is what is so special.
Yes, this was a way of counting the people. Count the shekels and you count the people. But, according to the Chatam Sofer, one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the 19th century, in his Rosh Hashanah sermons, this is what Hashem was teaching Moshe: Moshe knew that when a community is divided into separate groups, conflict arises. Therefore, Hashem commanded Moshe to take this census in order to unite B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.
What the rabbis notice is the equity of it all. The Tabernacle, the mobile Temple, belonged equally to every Israelite, without regard to social status or wealth. Rabbi Shefa Gold, a leader in ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, writes: The half-shekel we contribute is a reminder of the truth of our interdependency. Giving it consciously, we are saying, “Count me in!” Just by being alive and present I become an integral part of this glorious community. My half-shekel redeems me from the illusion of separation. The blessing of the half-shekel is that it saves me from inflation and self-importance. After all, it’s only a half-shekel, only a miniscule part of the whole. And the blessing of the half-shekel saves me from invisibility or demeaning of my self-worth. After all, my contribution is of equal value to everyone else’s, and the Mishkan could not be held together without it.
All human beings are equal before God; there is to be one standard contribution from all, to be neither exceeded nor reduced. I’ve always believed that people need to feel empowered, to feel that they made a difference. No matter how great or small, we can all contribute. I love this half-shekel concept; no one can say that they count more. No one can say I can’t afford it. It is the great equalizer. According to Chasidic literature, the half-shekel teaches us that no Jew can be complete without other Jews, that one Jew alone is only part of what he/she can become with others.
“The concept that everyone counts” begins in the Torah for us. Why did God make only one person to begin with? To teach us that no one can say my father was better than yours. Every little bit counts. A half-shekel. Can’t get much smaller. No excuses. “And God spoke to Moses saying that when you take a census of the people, each shall pay a half-shekel to God. Everyone who is 20 years old and above shall pay. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less.” Everybody has the chance to count.
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum is the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.