Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children'.
(photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)
Traditionally, in all Jewish communities, two Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark this Shabbat.
One is meant for reading the weekly portion – Vayakhel – and the other for reading a short text called Parshat Shkalim.
Reading Shkalim every year at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar is an ancient tradition that existed when the Temple stood and began when the Jewish nation was young, when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was built in the desert. According to this tradition, every Jew would give a half a shekel once a year for maintaining the Temple.
The basis of the tradition, though, was not the need to maintain the Temple, but rather an alternative to taking a census. By every Jew giving a standardized donation, information was gathered on the number of the Jews. But why not just take a census using straight forward methods? We read about this in the Torah: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.’” (Exodus 30:11-12) These verses lack an explanation. Why is it so dangerous to count the members of the Jewish nation? And on the other hand, there is no nation or state that can exist securely without information about the number of its citizens, so how is the Jewish nation supposed to exist without conducting a census? The Torah suggests a solution: “This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel.” (Exodus 30:13) We have to admit this is an odd solution. Ultimately, the census was conducted and the number of citizens was known, so what was gained by the fact that we counted coins rather than people? Is this some kind of trick, or there is a significant message hidden here? Counting people creates two interwoven problems.
One is the general worldview: Does the Jewish nation or the Jewish state base its right to exist on power or on spirit? Counting citizens expresses power. But the Torah sees power as dangerous, and history justifies fear of power. The right of a nation to exist is not dependent on strength and power, but on morality, values, uniqueness, and the message it brings to the world.
Power also leads to the second problem, which concerns human dignity. When a nation gains power, it tends to turn the private person into a “number.”
Instead of recognizing the sacredness of man, the infinite values of each and every person, power erases the individual and turns him into a means. The Jewish nation does not need explanations to understand this.
Etched with blood and ashes into the Jewish memory is the attempt made – only several decades ago – to turn man into a number.
For these reasons, the Torah warns us not to count people.
But despite this, since a state cannot exist without a census, the Torah suggests that the census be conducted by giving half a shekel. This is a brilliant solution since it expresses that the value of each person is his irreplaceable contribution; it teaches that the real power is in giving, and not in strength; it values each person equally – the rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel; and because it teaches us humility since each of us is not whole on our own but needs another to turn us from a half to a whole.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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