16 Adar 5772 / March 9-10, 2012
This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, is best known for its narrative of Moses coming down Mt. Sinai with the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments and smashing them upon seeing the Israelites worshipping a golden calf they had made. As we know, idolatry and Judaism do not mix.
And yet, I want to focus on the very beginning of the portion, where we read the following:
“God spoke to Moses saying: When you take a census of the Children of Israel . . . every man shall give a half shekel . . . . Everyone who passes through the census, from twenty years of age and up, shall give the portion . . . . The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel . . . to atone for your souls.”
We learn a few things from this.
First, to be counted in the census, you had to be at least 20 years old and male. This is likely due to an assumption that the purpose of taking the census was to help determine militaristic might / capabilities. This is particularly challenging however given that we know Israelite men younger than 20 fought in battles, that there was no maximum age to be counted, and there was no exception made for males over 20 with a physical handicap. Given that not all adult males (due to age or disability) would be valuable soldiers, to suggest a purely militaristic reason would leave something to be desired.
Second, the same half-shekel amount was required to be given by every such adult male, regardless of wealth. Fortunately, the half-shekel amount was relatively small, although the required minimum contribution likely had a greater impact on those struggling to get by. Granted, there is an imperative in traditional Jewish practice that even those who are the receivers of charity are required to give charity from what they receive, due to the recognition that there is always someone worse off than you are.
Finally, we learn that the purpose of this contribution is atonement. The paragraph describing this contribution is immediately preceded by instructions as to how Aaron and the High Priests after him shall utilize the incense alter in the tabernacle regularly, and then once a year (on Yom Kippur), make a special blood offering on the incense alter as a mechanism for atoning on behalf of the nation.
A logical conclusion might be that as a result of the Israelites seeking atonement by virtue of contributing half-shekels when taking a census, and given that once annually, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest also sought atonement on behalf of the nation, that perhaps there was an annual census, and that annual census took place right around Yom Kippur.
Frankly, this seems to be reflected present day as well, as synagogues are often filled to capacity once a year, on Yom Kippur – essentially an opportunity for the Jewish people to be counted. However, there are many who don’t attend synagogues, and there is no foolproof mechanism to clue us in on our own numbers as a people.
Some might say that there is no need to have an accurate count of how many Jews there are. Others might challenge who would qualify as a Jew if we were to actually try and figure out the exact number. However, for those organizations trying to meaningfully enhance life for the Jewish population, having a sense of how many people you might be trying to serve is essential in allocating resources.
If we were to try and collect $1 from every living Jew in the world to go to a common cause, what percentage of world Jewry do you think would participate (assuming that world Jewry could actually get behind the same common cause and not fight about it, which admittedly is a fantasy)? Would you participate? If so, why? If not, why not?
Are you ready to stand up and be counted as part of the Jewish people?
If so, what are you doing to make that readiness known?