At the end of this week’s Torah portion, a special maftir (final aliyah) is read from the portion of Ki Tisa regarding the command to conduct a census of the Jewish people through the collection of the half shekel coin. “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, when you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers… This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel…The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel.” (Exodus 30: 11-15) The half shekel coins, made of pure silver, were then used to craft the sockets which supported the walls of the Mishkan. Two questions arise: Firstly, why does the Torah specify that it was exactly a half shekel that had to be donated, and that regardless of their circumstances, a person was obligated to give that amount – no more, no less? Secondly, why was the silver from the half shekel specifically used to create the sockets of the Mishkan, rather than any of the other vessels?
I believe that the answer to the above questions sheds light on a deeper message to the entire episode of the half shekel census; the underlying theme is in fact a lesson in the balance between individual and nation — it represents the concept of not only focusing on our own individual spiritual growth, but also at the same time focusing on the needs of the broader community in which we reside. Truly, this is one of the great balancing acts of life.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory, Dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion, offers a fascinating explanation as to why it was specifically a half shekel coin, rather than simply a numerical system census, which was used to count the people. He writes:
“In God’s world there is nothing superfluous or repetitive. No creature is entirely like another. Each person has his or her own special personality, and each has his or her own individual path in the world… Therefore, if we view a person as some arbitrary number, and declare him equal in value to some other person, what we are in fact saying is that he has no right to exist. A person who becomes a number in the midst of other numbers, loses his individuality; he loses what it is that makes him special. Despite all of the above, there is a part of a Jew that may be numbered. There is a “half” inside every individual in Israel, a part of his or her personality, in which he or she is equal to every other member of the nation of Israel; this is the very fact of one’s Jewish identity… The “count” refers to the common quality that is unique to Am Yisrael – the “half” of the personality that is symbolized by the half-shekel. It is specifically this half that may be counted. By counting the “half” that one shares in common with others, the other, unique “half” is awakened and given expression…” (Sicha Shabbat Parashat Ki Tisa 5733) In order to internalize this powerful message, the half shekel coin – no more, no less – was collected.
However the necessity of feeling an attachment to the greater community is not simply a fine ideal, it is also an often overlooked yet fundamental aspect of spiritual growth. The majority of people would assume that a life of solitude and seclusion without the worries of the day-to-day would be the best recipe through which to achieve great spiritual heights and closeness to God, but according to the Torah perspective this could not be farther from the truth. The Midrash in Bereishet Rabba states, “Rabbi Berakhya said: Moshe was more loved than Noach. Noach, after he had been called “a righteous man” was called “a man of the earth.” But Moshe, after he had been called “an Egyptian man” was called “a man of God.” (Midrash Bereishit Rabba Parasha 36, 3). Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, a prominent Rabbi in Eastern Europe during the early 20th Century explains this cryptic midrash in his work, Meshech Chochma. He writes, “…there are two paths in the service of God, blessed be He. One path is that of one who dedicates himself to the service of God and goes into seclusion; and [the second path] is that of one who occupies himself in the affairs of the community, negating himself on their behalf and renouncing himself for their sake. This being the case, we should say that the one who goes into seclusion will rise higher and higher, whereas the other one’s(who occupies himself with the affairs of the community) should find his spiritual stature deteriorating … Yet in reality we find that Noach secluded himself and refrained from reproaching the people of his generation. It was therefore said about him (see Sanhedrin 108a) that he, too, was fit for destruction, having gone into seclusion. Therefore, after having been called “a righteous man,” he went down in level and was called “a man of the earth.” But Moshe, who was called “an Egyptian man” after having been forced into exile… since he endangered his life on behalf of Israel when he killed the Egyptian, was called “a man of God,” for he reached the ultimate perfection that man can attain.” (Meshech Chochma, Bereishit 9:20) The explanation given by Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk shows that in fact one who occupies himself with the needs of the community does not lose any spiritual standing from that involvement, but instead he actually increases in his spiritual growth. It is only through this communal involvement, and not on his own, that he can attain the lofty title “a man of God.”
I would like to posit that this above understanding of what it means to be concerned with the community also holds the answer to our second question above, as to why it was specifically the silver from the half shekel that was used to craft the sockets which supported the walls of the Mishkan. It is often quoted that the Mishkan represents the meeting place between man and the Divine here on Earth. As the verse writes, “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” (Exodus 40:34) All of the construction of the Mishkan and the crafting of the different vessels inside it were created in such a way so that when a person would see it, it would serve to facilitate their growth and to help them reach their personal spiritual heights. Further on this idea, it was specifically the silver from the half shekel –which represented the entire nation of Israel, from every tribe and strata — which was used to create the base of the Mishkan, signifying that we must always remember that within the midst of our own individual spiritual paths in life, one cannot ever be totally removed from the needs of the broader community around us.