The census must be an act of service,
not a demonstration of power
This week’s Torah portion begins with verse 11 of Exodus 30 — the commandment of each member of the Nation of Israel to give a half a shekel for the upkeep of the Tabernacle. Interestingly, there are a number of ideas that are compressed into these few verses.
The section begins with the verse: “When you will count the heads of the children of Israel according to their number, then each man will give a ransom for his soul to G-d as you count them, and there will not be any plague among them when you count them.” From this verse, we understand that the donation of the half shekel is not just about contributing to the work of the Temple. It is intrinsically connected to a census of the nation, to atonement and to the prevention of plague. It seems strange that these seemingly unconnected ideas should all be played out within the simple act of donating a half shekel to the Temple.
In fact, this small section was read in the synagogue a few weeks ago, as an additional reading to the normal weekly portion, just before the month of Adar began, for it was in that month that the half shekel donation took place, in anticipation of the annual maintenance of the Temple before the Passover holiday.
The atonement element of the half a shekel can actually be understood in the context of the verses that precede this section, when G-d instructs Moses and Aaron in the construction of the incense altar which will be used by Aaron to atone for the sins of the nation on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur.) Logically, then, if the half a shekel is used for the upkeep of the Temple, or the Tabernacle, it is a donation to the service of that holy place which acts as a vehicle of atonement for the nation.
The counting issue and the plague issue, however, are troubling. Clearly, G-d does not want the people counted in the normal manner, with people actually being counted by head. Instead, each person will contribute an equal coin and it is those coins which will be counted, thereby, enabling an indirect census. It is clear from these verses that if counting is done in another way, G-d will bring plague against the nation.
In fact, at the end of 2 Samuel, the severity of this instruction is illustrated. (Chapter 24) David provokes G-d’s anger by counting the nation of Israel, even though his Chief of Staff, Joab, has advised against it. The result was a plague from Dan until Beersheva in which 70,000 people are killed. David realizes he has done wrong and begs forgiveness. The immediate response to David, through Nathan the prophet, is that David should purchase the threshing floor from Aravna the Jebusite and build an altar to G-d. It is in fact, on this very spot, where the Temple will be built by David’s son Solomon.
David sinned against G-d in forcing a census to display his military might, without collecting the half a shekel. David repented by preparing the way for the construction of the Temple where the half a shekel will be collected annually for its upkeep.
G-d does not want the leaders of the Jewish nation to count people as if they were sheep or in order to measure military strength or economic power. The people of Israel are G-d’s people and the blessing of their growth must be intertwined with the blessing of serving G-d. When the counting is done in such a way that it serves G-d, it is a blessing. When it is done differently, plague and devastation result.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zachariah 4:6)
Director, Israel Office