Parashat Shekalim is one of the more intriguing sections found in the Torah. Opening Parashat Ki Tisa, the Parashah most known for the long section detailing Cheit HaEigel, we find a plethora of sections describing the Mishkan, the very first of which is the collection of the Machatzit HaShekel for the census of Bnei Yisrael. As the Pasuk states, when Moshe takes count of the nation, “VeNatenu Ish Kofer Nafsho LaShem,” “Each person should give an atonement for his soul to Hashem” (Shemot 30:12). In practice, this refers to giving a sum of money for the construction of the Mishkan; this sum is listed later as Machatzit HaShekel. However, not everything is so clear in this Parashah. The theme of this section is not the census itself but atonement. The Milah Manchah (oft-repeated word) of the section is Kaparah, atonement, mentioned four times in six Pesukim!
One explanation for this is that this entire segment of Sefer Shemot dealing with the Mishkan occurs after Cheit HaEigel. The Mishkan itself serves as a Kaparah for the sin, and the donation of money to the Mishkan is how Bnei Yisrael themselves take part in this Kaparah. However, this explanation does not seem to satisfy the introductory Pasuk of “VeNatenu … Lo Yihyeh Vahem Negef BiFkod Otam” “They shall give … and there will not be a plague in their counting” (ibid.). The Pasuk seems to be making a direct correlation between a plague and the census, specifically the direct counting of the people. It seems as if the plague is a punishment for misconduct during the census itself. Why? What is wrong with counting the people, especially when it is needed to form an army later in Tanach?
When David HaMelech was king, he dealt with this very issue. Toward the end of Sefer Shmuel, we find the story of David’s direct census of the Jewish people. He immediately regrets it but still has to face punishment. Gad, the head Navi of that time, goes to David and gives him three choices for a punishment: a seven-year famine, three months of being chased by an enemy, or a three-day pestilence. David chooses the punishment that is solely in Hashem’s hands, the pestilence, in hope for Divine mercy, and the punishment is shortened to half of a day. However, each of these punishments shares a quality. All three punishments would have affected not only David but also Bnei Yisrael as a whole. One may ask why Bnei Yisrael are punished for David’s sin, but the answer lies in the fact that the transgression itself involves the entire people. David sends messengers to traverse the entire land, counting each and every person in Eretz Yisrael. However, this is completely against what Hashem wants. In counting each individual separately, David is sending a message that his country is made up of individuals. But individuals cannot run a country, especially one devoted to a single cause, Hashem. The group is the important part; the group is the focus of Judaism. Rarely in Tanach do we find Jews existing alone; even Avraham, the pioneer of Avodat Hashem, has his followers. In the group do we serve Hashem, and in the group do we survive as a people.
This is the point of the Machatzit HaShekel. If each person gives a coin, it is as if he is giving himself over to the group. When Moshe counts, he is counting not the individuals but the group: all the coins are mixed together. The Pasuk states, “HeAshir Lo Yarbeh VeHaDal Lo Yam’it,” “The wealthy shall not increase and the poor shall not decrease” (30:15), because if the wealthy and the poor were to give different amounts, the people would be not be unified. This is the Kaparah mentioned so often in this section. Bnei Yisrael, who at this stage often complain, are a new group of people who have suddenly become a nation. They are still not completely unified, and they are thus unable to serve Hashem properly. They are, in effect, sinning by not unifying themselves. The Machatzit HaShekel then serves as an atonement, to show each person that he is no better than the next in the eyes of Hashem. The money given even goes to purchase Korbanot, showing that the community is the one that serves Hashem.
Today, Judaism faces the same problem as before the census in the Midbar. We are splintered, placed into many factions of our religion. We seem to stay within our groups, not expanding to include others. But Jews cannot survive as individuals. Assimilation is rampant, causing loss of Jewish identity. The idea of being Jewish is so rare in today’s gigantic world. It is important that people understand the Kedushah and special bond we have with Hashem, not as splinters, but as a people. The only way the Jewish nation can stay strong is by uniting itself. The Machatzit HaShekel teaches us this concept; all we have to do is put it into practice.