At the beginning of Parashat Ki Tisa, we are told of the counting of Bnei Yisrael: “Ki Tisa Et Rosh Bnei Yisrael LiFekudeihem VeNatenu Ish Kofer Nafsho LaHashem BiFekod Otam, VeLo Yihyeh VaHem Negef BiFekod Otam,” “When you take the sum of Bnei Yisrael according to their numbers, let each one give to Hashem an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted” (Shemot 30:12). There are several glaring questions that arise after reading this instruction from Hashem. Why does this counting have to be done by giving a Half Shekel? For what transgression do Bnei Yisrael need atonement, and why would they potentially be sentenced to a plague? Rav Shmuel Goldin presents answers to our puzzling questions by laying out many of the commentaries on these Pesukim in his book, Unlocking the Torah Text: Shemot.
Concerning our first question about the method of the census, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch posits that there are two core messages coming from this commandment. The first is the idea that Hashem does not favor one Jew over his fellow because of wealth, even if this wealthy gentleman gives copious amounts of Tzedakah. We see from the fact that “the rich could not give more and the poor could not give less” (30:15) that everyone, regardless of financial status, gives the same amount, and everyone is loved by Hashem equally (Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shemot 30:13-15).
This idea complements Rav Moshe Chaifetz’s reasoning for the need for atonement. He writes that because the gifts that individuals will bring for the Mishkan vary in size, a preemptive measure is needed to communicate to the entire nation that they are equally loved by Hashem (Melechet Machshevet, Shemot 30:12).
The second message, Rav Hirsch writes, is the significance of the unity of the people. By giving only half of a Shekel, no one person is a whole by himself. Only as a people can Bnei Yisrael be considered complete (Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 30:13-15). We find an instance that can relate to this in the context of Ya’akov Avinu’s fighting Eisav’s angel: “VaYivateir Ya’akov Levado,” “And Ya’akov was left alone” (BeReishit 32:25); because he was alone, Ya’akov became vulnerable to an attack. So too, we must bind together as a nation to be completely protected and capable of accomplishing the tasks given to us (Rav Goldin, Unlocking the Torah Text: BeReishit, VaYishlach 2).
Rabbeinu Bachya aligns with this approach as he believes that the sin for which Bnei Yisrael needed atonement was counting people without the coins. He writes that by counting members of Bnei Yisrael individually, we divide them into separate entities instead of keeping them as part of the nation. He writes that each person’s danger must be atoned for by the money given in this census (Rabbeinu Bachya, Shemot 30:12).
Another message that we can learn, articulated by Rav Goldin, is to focus on Bnei Yisrael’s active role in this counting: “Zeh Yitenu Kol HaOveir Al HaPekudim Machatzit HaShekel BeShekel HaKodesh,” “This is what they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting, Half a Shekel of the Holy Shekel (Shemot 30:13). Each and every person was given an individual commandment to actively participate in giving money towards the census, rather than just passively being counted. This teaches us that to be part of Bnei Yisrael and to be considered a part of the nation, one must actively be a Jew. We see this message play out regarding families of Kohanim that become non-observant. If they stop performing their Jewish duties and Orthodox affiliation for several generations, it is possible that their descendants will not be considered as Kohanim, even if they return to a proper religious state.
There are many important and crucial messages to derive from the opening group of Pesukim of our Parashah. We must actively treat every Jew with respect, no matter who he or she is. All Jews are loved by Hashem equally, and without them, we would be fragmented because every Jew contributes to the creating of a nation. We must take this affiliation and use it to strengthen our relationships with others, actively creating the wholeness that makes the power of a nation so strong.