Ki Tissa 5770

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Scott Greenberg

March 6, 2010 / 20 Adar 5770

2010 is a special year for the United States: it is a census year (next year, 2011, is a census year in Canada). The U.S. constitution mandates that the federal government make an “enumeration” of America’s citizens for representation purposes every ten years, starting in 1790. In earlier censuses, the U.S. government was only interested in getting an accurate count of the number of people in each town, district, and state; now, the Bureau of the Census tries to get a complete socio-economic snapshot of the American people. The census has stirred up a lot of controversy concerning how it treats races, ethnicities, gender, and different family structures. It is clear that many of a society’s values can be revealed through how it takes a census.

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, God commands Moses to take a census of the people Israel, a census that is very different from our census in America. The text says:

“When you take the census of the children of Israel, according to their number, then each man should give an atonement for his soul to the LORD, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you number them.”

Here, the census of the Israelites was not just a national undertaking; rather, it also served as a method for individual atonement and a protection against some sort of plague. While “atonement” and “plague” are up to your interpretation, it is clear that this was no mundane procedure.

The most distinctive feature of the Israelite census was that counting heads was strictly forbidden. Rather, every person counted was to give a half-shekel donation to the Mishkan, and the population could be figured out by simple math. Why the complication? Several reasons are offered by our tradition. First, by donating half-shekels to the Mishkan, the Israelites were able to turn a public activity (the census) into a religious one (the funding of the Mishkan), a way of killing two birds with one stone. Second, the fact that both rich and poor people gave the same donation for the census indicates their equality before the eyes of God – God doesn’t favor somebody because of how much money he has (compare this to the U.S. census form which asks for annual income). Last, one commentator points out that you count animals (such as sheep) with a headcount because each animal is exactly like the others. To count the Israelites by heads would be to demean their individualities, as if they were animals, thus identical coins are counted.

Chances are that you won’t be donating half-shekel coins for the U.S. and Canada upcoming censuses. But the values that the ancient Israelite census embodies – philanthropy, equality, and individuality – are ones that we should try and emulate in our own lives.