The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Shemot: Defining a Nation, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Ki Tisa: To Count or Not to Count

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“When you take the sum of the children of Israel after their number, each one shall be counted by giving an atonement offering for his life. In this manner, they will not be stricken by the plague when they are counted. Everyone included in the census must include a half-shekel.” (Exodus 30:12–13)

To count or not to count is not the question, but rather how to count! And whom you cannot count! At first glance, one of the more curious laws in the Torah is the prohibition to count Jews. The Talmud records:

“R. Elazar said, “Whoever counts an Israelite, transgresses a [single] prohibition, as it is written, ‘And the number of the children are as the sand of the sea which cannot be measured’” (Hosea 2:1). R. Nahman bar Isaac says, “He transgresses two prohibitions, as the verse concludes, ‘and cannot be counted.’” (Yoma 22b)

Given this, how are we to understand the opening of the portion of Ki Tisa, where God commands Moses to count the Israelites? Count, but not by counting heads, but rather by counting the half-shekel coins which every Israelite was commanded to bring. But isn’t this actually a subterfuge, a kind of legal fiction?

Moreover, what is the significance of a half-shekel? If you’re using coins, would a whole shekel not better represent the “whole” person?

Furthermore, how are we to understand the word “tisa?” The Hebrew root implies “lifting up.” Rashi, citing Targum Onkelos, informs us that it means to obtain, or to receive, which is how most translations treat the word: “When you take sum of the children of Israel….” The Midrash (Pesikta Rabati 11) picks up on the idea of “lifting” but goes one step further; more than to lift, Ki Tisa is about uplifting, not just to raise but to exalt. And in this count of counts, we are exalting not only Israel, but also the God of Israel. “In whatever manner you can uplift this nation, uplift. For it says, ki tisa et rosh bnai Yisrael [When you lift up the head of the children of Israel]. And there is no head of the Jewish people except for God.”

How are we exalting God by counting half-shekels? Perhaps a fascinating Talmudic discussion between the two religio-political parties of the Second Commonwealth, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, will help us understand the importance of a census in the first place. Everyone agrees that we are forbidden to mourn during the first week of the month of Nisan because this marks the original establishment of the tamid, the daily sacrifice, in the Temple, but they disagree as to how the daily sacrifice should be funded. The Sadducees, who represented the aristocracy, believed that specific donors could, of their own free will, defray the cost of the daily offering, while the Pharisees insisted that the universal half-shekel payments be used for these offerings (Menaĥot 65a).

Apparently, the Pharisees, forerunners of Rabbinic Judaism, which gave us the Talmud, wanted the daily offering to remain a national enterprise, a gift to God from every single Jew. And the only way to guarantee its “democratic” spirit would be to insist on equal contributions, where the Rothschilds and Tevyes had equal input:

“The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than one half-shekel when giving an offering before the Lord, to atone for your souls.” (Exodus 30:15)

This idea is implicitly discussed and further illuminated in the Jerusalem Talmud, where we find the sages debating the reason for the Torah’s choice of the half-shekel in this portion. R. Yehuda explains that “since they sinned at half-day [the celebration of the golden calf began at mid- day] they had to give a half-shekel.” R. Pinhas, in the name of R. Levi, attributes it to the selling of Joseph. “Since the brothers sold the first son of Rachel, Joseph, for twenty silver pieces – and with Benjamin being too young and Joseph not being a recipient, each of the ten brothers received one-half shekel” (Shekalim, 2:3).

I would like to suggest that both of these opinions are two sides of the same coin: both idolatry and sibling rivalry reflect a world in which the value of national unity and togetherness is of paltry significance.

Idolatry results from feeling impotent in a world controlled by external and irrational forces which we humans can at best “bribe,” but can never work with in partnership. And the sale of Joseph, the expulsion of one brother from a family, expressed the view that one segment of a nation has the right to destroy, banish, or delegitimize other segments of the nation with whom they ideologically disagree and over whom they can exercise political or physical control.

The half-shekel census for the daily Temple sacrifice is a specific remedy for national feelings of internal fractiousness and ultimate impotence. The very taking of a census affirms national pride and self- confidence; it asserts the importance of every individual member as contributing to the whole.

And why a half-shekel? Simply stated, we are being taught that every Jew is incomplete without every other Jew. Every Jew must be brought closer, not pushed away. The whole is comprised of the sum of its parts, and every part is unassailably precious.

A story is told about two Hassidic masters who had spent their youth studying together in a yeshiva and sharing every imaginable adventure and crisis. Upon going their separate ways, they exchanged photos by which to remember each other. But one of the young men took the photo of himself and tore it in half, and then he tore the photo of his friend in half as well. It’s not enough, he explained, to remember the other; it is far more important to always remember that without the other, each of us is only half a person, an incomplete specimen.

But, if the half-shekel contribution is such a laudatory act, a symbol of Jewish national strength and unity, why should the Torah con- sider it a sin to count Jews? Indeed, the very pride of the nation seems to be in the counting!

To answer this question, and to deepen our entire attitude towards the census, we must interpret the midrashic image in the name of R. Meir:

“God removed a coin of fire from under his throne of glory and He showed it to Moses, saying, ‘This is what they shall give.’” (Tanĥuma, Ki Tisa, 9)

How are we to understand this coin of fire? Did not Moses know what a half-shekel coin looked like? Fire symbolizes the spirit of God which resides within the nation of Israel, the Shekhinah who dwells in the midst of each individual of the nation. Israel was forged and formed by the divine voice at Sinai and is best described as a burning bush [The biblical word used for the burning bush is sneh which has similar letters to the word Sinai], which is never consumed by the inspiring sparks and flames of fervor that emerge from its depth; much the opposite, it is that very fire of the divine which provides the fuel for Israel’s eternity.

From this perspective, the whole is not merely comprised of each of its parts; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The whole is not only the Jewish nation; it is also the God who resides in our nation, the very God who is uplifted together with His people when each of them is counted – and when it is thereby understood that every Jew counts! And the whole is not merely the Jewish nation today. It is also the Jewish nation of yesterday and tomorrow. It is not only klal Yisrael, the entire nation; it is also knesset Yisrael, historic and eternal Israel. Yes, the nation as a united whole is significant – but that is only part of the story. The children of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the parents of the Messiah must always include their forbears as well as their progeny in a total assessment of where we stand and what we stand for.

And this “eternal” aspect of our existence is really the reason why we do not count Jews. We don’t count because we can’t count. Since the Jewish people are an eternal people, all those Jews who have lived before us, and all those Jews who haven’t even been born yet, are part of our nation, part of knesset Yisrael. In the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the daily sacrifice is not an offering of partnership (korban shutfut), but rather an offering of historic community (korban tzibbur). And if Israel includes within it the metaphysical idea of a historic nation, how can we ever count eternity?

Shabbat Shalom


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