Parshat Ki Tissa by Sarah Cheses
Counting, the Torah warns us in Parshat Ki Tisa, can be dangerous. Hashem tells Moshe, “When you take a census of Bnei Yisroel according to their enrollment, each shall pay….a half- shekel. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than a half- shekel. (Shemot 30:11-12, 15).” Instead of counting each person individually, they are each to donate a half-shekel worth of silver, and the population will be calculated based upon the total amount collected. “We must count the people this way so “that no plague may come upon them through their being counted (30:11).”
Why must the population be counted in this indirect manner? Even more, why must each member donate specifically a half shekel?
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Shemot 30:13-15) explains that underlying this mitzvah are the important ideas of equality and unity. By each person donating the same amount, regardless of one’s economic status, we understand that we are all equal; we all matter the same amount. By donating specifically a half shekel, we internalize the message of unity. No one is complete without another. We cannot become “whole” individuals without joining with others around us.
It is in order that we do not see ourselves as individuals, explains Rabbeinu Bachya (Shemot 30:12), we are commanded to take the census indirectly. If we were to be counted directly, one by one, then for that split second as each person was counted, he or she would stand alone, as an individual. A person alone is susceptible to physical and spiritual dangers, but the community offers protection to its members.
This mitzvah encourages us to think about the collective. We are commanded to think about others in our midst who may be less fortunate than us, and ensure that they are cared for.
In fact, Rabbi Goldin, in his book Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-depth Journey Into the Weekly Parsha, suggests that a Jew must think collectively in order to become part of the community. Taking the census in this manner shows us that we cannot passively become part of a community; we must earn our affiliation. “In order to be counted as a member of the Jewish community, you must actively do something that ‘counts’.”
Though the Beit Hamikdash is no longer standing, and there is no need to collect silver for the Temple’s daily functions, we continue to donate half-currency coins every year before Purim, for the messages of equality and unity are everlasting. This method of conducting the census warns us of the dangers of viewing ourselves solely as individuals, and thinking only about our individual needs. It reminds us to look beyond our personal lives to help the greater community, and ensure that we are all cared for equally.