Next year the decennial census will be taken as prescribed by Article 2, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. Our Torah reading this week describes the procedure for the Israelite census, although that census is never mandated and must have a compelling reason for being carried out. The usual method of an individual headcount is forbidden and, instead, a contribution of a personal item is substituted, such as a silver coin.
The explanations for this have been a matter of conjecture. Some attribute it to ayin ha’rah, the evil eye, the harmful negative energy that may occur, says Rashi, when someone looks at something with envy or ill feeling. Sforno suggests that a group is judged more favorably than an individual by the Divine Providence because a group demonstrates unity and social cohesion, while individuals are scrutinized more closely for their sins. King Saul used sheep to effectuate a count [1 Samuel 15:4]. We see an instance when this instruction was violated and tragedy ensued. King David conducted a forbidden census that resulted in 70,000 deaths from a plague [2 Samuel 24]. Today when we count ten people for a minyan, we recite a 10-word verse from Psalms [Psalms 28:9] rather than pronouncing a numerical headcount.
The Torah reading begins by telling us that when taking a census of the Children of Israel, each man shall give to God a half-shekel as an “atonement for his soul” (“kofer nafsho”), so that there will not be a plague when they are counted [Exodus 30:12-13]. An atonement for his soul? What sin is being atoned? This is only a census and if counting by head is prohibited, the verse should have simply said that the coin will prevent a plague. But atonement? Some of the funds collected would be used for communal Temple offerings, which would include offerings for some particular sins. But that alone would not account for this strange association.
The Torah goes on to say that each individual, whether rich or poor, will contribute exactly a half-shekel coin [Ex. 30:13]. Why a half-shekel and not a whole? Some commentators say that the half is to teach us that we are incomplete unless we join with others, again the concept of unity. But then for a second time the Torah tells us that this contribution is “l’chaper al nafshosaichem” (“to atone for your souls”) [Ex. 30:15]. And if that was not enough, this section ends by saying that “you shall take the silver of the atonement… and it shall be a remembrance before God for the Children of Israel, to atone for your souls.” Atonement for a third time! The Torah is generally sparing with its words. Here it seems to be emphasizing a strong connection between the half-shekel coin and our souls. Why an insistence on this connection?
I would like to suggest the following. Since the question involves a metaphysical aspect of ourselves, our souls, Rashi points to a Midrash that is of a supernal nature to help us understand this query. When God tells Moses to take a census with a half-shekel coin, the verse says “zeh yitnu,” (“This [pointing to a fiery half-shekel coin] shall they give”) [Ex. 30:13]. The Midrash [Tanchuma 9] says that the Holy One took out a coin of fire from under His Throne to show Moses, who may not have understood why a half and not a whole shekel was commanded, and said, “This shall they give.”
We now may begin to piece together the connection between the fiery coin and the atonement for our souls. The coin of fire was taken from under the Kisei Hakovod (the Holy Throne). Interestingly, that is the exact place from which the soul of each of the Jewish people comes. Just as our souls were stored under the Holy Throne, so the atonement for the soul when it grievously sins is stored there, the half shekel. There is a principle in Judaism that God sends the cure before he sends the disease, “makdim refuah l’makah.”
Now Moses understood how the Machtzit Hashekel, the half-shekel, can be a “kofer nafsho,” an atonement for the soul for a future sin. That has a much deeper significance than is at first apparent. Our soul, our neshama, the spiritual aspect of each of us, constantly strives to keep its connection to God, but sometimes it becomes sullied by our actions and needs repair.
Throughout Jewish history we have seen that disunity and “sinat chinam” (baseless hatred) has resulted in tragedy for our people. May we all think about the significance of the half-shekel as a symbol of joining together with our brothers and sisters to make a complete shekel in a display of achdut (unity) among our people which will secure our well-being and bring the long hoped for state of peace.
The Psalmist understood this when he wrote, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” [Psalm 133].
Fred Ehrman is a retired investment adviser and held leadership positions in several Jewish institutions. He is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi.
Shabbat Candles: 5:20 p.m.
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Torah: Ex. 30:11-34:35
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1-39
Havdalah: 6:22 p.m.