By Rabbi Gabor Lengyel
4 March 2010 / 18 Adar 5770
וידבר יהוה אל משה לאמור: כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל לפקדיהם ונתנו איש כפר נפשו ליהוה (Exodus 30: 11-12)
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment, each shall pay the Eternal a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” This is how Moses Mendelsohn translated this verse
We continue reading the parsha:
זה יתנו כל העבר על הפקדים מחצית השקל בשקל… העשיר לא ירבה והדל לא ימעיט ממחצית השקל לתת את תרומת יהוה לכפר על נפשתיכם (Exodus 30: 13-15)
“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight … the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving to the Eternal’s offering as expiation for your persons.”
The biblical commentators ask why the Torah prescribed that each person enrolling in the census give only half a shekel and not a whole one. The contribution, according to some commentators, had a symbolical value: by making a minimal donation each person had the possibility to show their affiliation with the people of Israel and was consequently allowed to enroll in the census.
Affiliation with the people of Israel is, however, only half the explanation. In order to become a good Jew, each person also has to fulfill the commandments of the Torah and צדקה וגמילות חסדים, e.g. to give charity. This adds another half to the already existing half and thus forms a whole.
Chassidic commentators answer the question why the Torah prescribed that each person give only half a shekel in an imaginative way, by pointing out that this passage teaches all of mankind a lesson in ethics: the half shekel suggests that each person should consider themselves as only half a person and must connect with another for their complete self to be realized.
It is actually dangerous to count Jews. In order to illustrate this point, I will call to memory a short episode from II Samuel:
One day King David decided to conduct a census. His chief of staff Joav warned him of carrying out his plan. King David, however, remained obstinate and organized the census. In verse 15 we read:
“The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel… and 70,000 of the people died, from Dan to Beer-Sheba.” (II Samuel 24:15)
Why is it dangerous to count Jews?
Counting was seen as a privilege reserved for G-d alone. People who conducted a census without divine approval brought G-d’s wrath upon themselves. That is the reason why David’s census resulted in a disaster.
To put it simply: if a census is to be carried out, money should be paid as atonement for this transgression, in order to prevent G-d’s wrath.
Why is it that many nations want to conduct a census? They do this actually in order to demonstrate their power, to ascertain how many citizens can be drafted; or they use the census to determine the number of tax payers. The message conveyed by a census is always connected to numbers: The larger the numbers, the greater the nation’s power.
But why then is counting not as important for us? We are a tiny people. In one of Moses’ last speeches to the community we read:
לא מרבכם מכל העמים חשק יהוה בכם ויבחר בכם כי אתם המעט מכל העמים. (Deuteronomy 7: 7)
“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Eternal grew attached to you and chose you – you are the smallest of peoples.” That’s what is written in Devarim.
The danger of counting our people lies in the fact that if we Jews believed in the power of numbers, we would find ourselves in a truly desperate situation.
It is true that in numbers we are a tiny community. Thanks to the Eternal, however, we have made important contributions to mankind, e.g., in the fields of physics, psychiatry, politics, literature and music. The contribution the Jewish people have made to Western civilization is also unrivaled. Our tiny people have brought forth great prophets, scholars of Torah and Halacha, as well as commentators of Writings (Ketubim) and philosophers.
In order to win the Jewish battle, the battle for the spirit, for the victory of the heart, and the battle for the soul, we do not need large numbers. We need devotion, involvement, commitment, study, prayer, visions, ideals and hope, ha-Tikva. We need a people that are instinctively prepared to give, as we can read in Zechariah:
ויען ויאמר אלי לאמר זה דבר יהוה אל זרבבל לאמר לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר יהוה צבאות (Zechariah 4: 6)
“This is the word of the Lord of Zerubabbel: Not by might nor by power but My spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.”
Parshat Ki Tisa, by Rabbi Gabor Lengyel,
Liberale Juedische Gemeinde
– Hannover, Germany