Torah from around the world #54

by Rabbi Dr. Shaul (Paul) R Feinberg, Associate Dean Emeritus,

Hebrew Union College

, Jerusalem

This week’s Parasha opens with an administrative injunction: a call for a census of males of military age. For a number of reasons the census was to be carried out by counting  a one-half shekel contribution to the Temple. As it is written:

each person was to pay an Eternal ransom for himself



is related to




). In other words this contribution was concrete proof, for recording the total number of persons available for military service, going out to battle. In fact the giving over of this payment was to personally impress upon the soldier that fact that as high as the aims were for going to battle, war remained at best a

necessary evil

; in the eyes of Heaven, the warrior was a potential taker of another life; even though it was that of an adversary (B. Jacob, in The Pentateuch and Haftoras; p 352; editor J. Hertz)

Such objective numbering was a partial indication of the quantitative  measure of  the population’s well-being. In my opinion, however, the manner in which this census was carried out reflected the desire to achieve a qualitative, subjective measure of valuing.

In addition to this half-shekel contribution for  the soldier’s personal expiation before going out to war, a second contribution of any amount was also required. This was committed in fulfillment of communal responsibilities to maintain communal institutions, and was carried out in Adar (or 11 Adar in a leap year) six weeks prior to preparation of Pesach offerings.(Nachmanides Ex.30:12; Mishnah Shekelim 1:1; S. R Hirsch—see Gunthar Plaut, The Torah A Modern Commentary, pp 584, 1527)

In our society such bureaucratic procedures as census taking and taxation are by definition impersonal exercises, both for the civil servant, and the one being counted, taxed.

The Torah’s rendering of this act conveys


dimension, if we engage in what I like to call “an inspired reading between the lines.” ”

Kee Tisa et rosh benei Yisrael l’fkudeihem

…when you lift up the head of the Israelites…” (Exodus 30:12). In relying on a selective part of  a classic code of interpretation,


, we learn the following: the


— simple or surface significance —basically describes a ‘head count.’ But through the Remez — a metaphoric hint to some greater truth — we gleen new insight. The commentary/translation provided here, serves as a means for demonstrating that in  the quantitative character of the act — “enumerating”—.a personal quality inheres: the need to [optimally] pay attention to the one being counted. The human being is more than a number, a mark on a graph, a statistic.

Playwrite Arthur Miller gave class expression to the harsh reality in which  the drudgery and pressures of daily commerce — enumeration of profit and loss — destroyed the human being in the midst of  life. Death of a Salesman highlighted dilemmas we face each  trying to maintain our own humanity and that of others in close or distant proximity.

Of course we yearn to improve in our profession, adding levels to achievement, climbing one ladder or another. But when a neighbor, or close relative, or colleague becomes a means to our end, an object of our manipulation, part of our humanity dissipates. Remaining vigilant, though, we can keep the face of the other before us,

trying to lift up another’s head

, bowed by the weight of adversities.

And we never act alone, but in partnership. Our own statures grow — though this ought not be the main motivation — as we labor to serve the Holy One, by “lifting up the fallen.” As one candle lights another, without any part of the original flame disappearing, so does our strength gain with a hand outstretched, a shoulder given, our joys shared with those who have little. One who lifts up is uplifted!

This value is dramatically rehearsed with the concluding reading of each book of Torah. The

shaliakh tzibur

pauses before reading the last verse, as the congregation stands, as a multitude. Upon conclusion, the prayer leader declares,

Khazak-Khazak V’nitkhazeik

and the congregation follows, each person turning right and left — be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Martin Buber, tried to inculcate such values, declaring that persons “meet” one another, face to face, with no degree of manipulative power games. Such an engagement — Buber urged that “all life is meeting — took place as

I- Thou

. The contrary was an


relationship in which the dominant motif was exploitative manipulation, anything and everything but… “lifting the head of another.” We seek to learn, with eyes wide open and outstretched hands.

Teach us O God to count our days that we acquire wise hearts

(Ps 90:12) Perhaps, to take account,

to make them count

…The quantity of days is a gift, as we learn to reverence the quality of each day, while enabling others to do so.. Teach us to esteem the humanity of  all those who cross our paths, seeking ways of lifting their heads, looking into their eyes, the “windows on the soul.”

Gilad Shalit: for more than five and a half years, the people of Israel have counted over 1500 days of  his solitary confinement by Hamas captors in Gaza; no permission is given for any international representative to visit. Neither Red Cross, or UN emissary crosses his threshold, unlike benefits allowed our Hamas prisoners. Those tens of thousands who have visited Noam and Aviva Shalit in the protest tent 100 meters from the Prime Minister’s home seek to lift their heads, embrace them, convey heartfelt hopes to them, as all pray for bold government initiative to bring Gilad home.We ask you to pray, visit his parents, or send your emissaries to do so; find the internet links in support of this protest, to connect with officials, with family, with colleagues who share the mission seeking to lift his Gilad Shalit’s fallen countenance and bringing him home.

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