One of the most popular antisemitic tropes is that Jews are all about money. But is there perhaps some truth to this? After all, when the Jewish census was taken, Moses didn’t count people. Instead, he counted money. He told each Jew to donate a half silver coin, and he counted the shekels. How does that make sense?
People often complain that when they come to Shull, they are judged by how much they contribute. Ah, here comes the generous one, here comes the stingy one, etc. In social circles, they also feel judged by their economic status. When you see someone, they say, you should see a person, not a dollar figure. Yet, instead of counting people, Moses counted money. So, when he looked at a Jew, did He only see a coin?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory offered a novel insight. “Numerically,” he wrote, “we are small, but in terms of our contribution to civilization and humankind, we are vast.”
Jews are one of the smallest nations on earth. We cannot expect to change the world with such small numbers. Yet, if you compare our contribution to that of any other nation, we eclipse them all. Despite the paucity of our numbers, we have done more for civilization than any other group. We have always punched beyond our weight. Jews are among the most generous benefactors in the world. Jews lead the way in so many fields that anyone would be excused for assuming we are the largest nation on earth.
Jews are at the forefront of science, technology, business, entertainment, economics, government, art, poetry, and the list goes on. If you want to know the strength of the Jewish people, ask them to give. If you measure our impact, if you count the coins that we give to charity, the innumerable ways in which we benefit humanity and the world, we are a prominent nation. This is the profound message of the census.
Said Moses to the Jews of yesteryear, you can make a difference. By your numbers, you are the smallest of the nations, but with your contribution, you can change the world.
Seen By Moses
This jives with an interesting commentary by Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, otherwise known as Nachmanides. He wondered why the census was necessary. Didn’t G-d already know the number?
He explained that the census was not designed to give G-d a number. It was designed to give each Jew a chance to be counted by the likes of Moses and Aaron, the two holiest people of the generation.
When you and I look at a stranger, all we see is a person. We know nothing about their potential, their capacity, their talents, and their strengths. We know nothing about their achievements, their failures, their challenges, and their trials. Nothing about their triumphs, their losses, their families, their backgrounds, their past, or their future.
The problem is that all too often, we see the same when we look at ourselves. We don’t judge ourselves by our strengths but by our weaknesses. We don’t judge ourselves by our achievements but by our failures. We don’t judge ourselves by our victories but by our losses. We don’t judge ourselves by our potential but by our insecurities, vices, compulsions, obsessions, addictions, etc.
When Moses and Aaron looked at a fellow Jew, they saw an entirely different picture. They did not see failures; they saw giants. They did not see the past; they saw the future. They did not broken shards; they saw huge potential.
When you passed before Moses and Aaron and were seen this way by them, you walked away feeling an inch, if not ten feet, taller. If Moses saw this in me, it must be true. If Moses sees me with respect, I see myself in an entirely new light. When we see the best in others, we empower them. Especially if we don’t just pretend to see it but actually see it. Moses and Aaron peered deep into the people’s souls. They did not see struggling humans. They saw towering souls. And before long, the people saw themselves this way too.
This is why it was not enough for the Jews to drop their coins in a bucket and walk away. Each Jew passed by Moses and Aaron and personally handed them their coin. Moses and Aaron received the person, accepted the coin, and added it to the count. Twelve, thirteen, Forty-two thousand, etc.
When they walked away, each Jew knew that Moses peered deep into their soul and saw a complete person. Not a broken shard. Not a shattered spirit. A whole human. One that is every bit as precious, unique, beautiful, and bountiful as any other Jew in the nation. Each Jew counts. No one is less than one.
The Torah, therefore, instructs Moses to not just count the Jews, but se’u et rosh—lift their heads. When you lift their head—their self concept, they will rise to the occasion and step up. They will be counted.
This, explains Nachmanides, is why the Torah uses a peculiar word, pekod, for counting. Pekod does indeed mean to count, but it is not the usual word for count. Minyan is the more common word for counting. Pekod, however, has two other meanings that the Torah meant to imply. Pekod means to remember, and it means to deposit for safekeeping.
The message is this. When you are counted by Moses, and you walk away aware of your immense abilities and, therefore, responsibilities, G-d takes note of you and remembers you. It is not only you who see yourself in a superior light. G-d also sees you in a superior light. It is a chain reaction. Moses believes in us, so we believe in ourselves. When we believe in ourselves, G-d expects more from us. The next time that something needs doing, G-d looks to us to see how we might respond. Pekod, He will remember.
But G-d doesn’t merely remember in order to keep score. He also holds our hand and safeguards us. We are His precious treasure, and we are on deposit with Him for safekeeping. It is not only our bodies that must be kept safe, but also our souls, our feelings, and our delicate dispositions. It is so easy to lose faith in ourselves. Pekod, G-d takes responsibility for our safekeeping.
He ensures that our newfound confidence remains with us. He ensures that the next time we have an opportunity to make a difference, we will have the resources to make it happen. That is His promise.
The rest is up to us. We need to step up to the plate and swing. We need to make the choice to stand up and be counted. We need to step up and make a difference. And while G-d is proactive about safekeeping, He waits for us to be proactive about making a choice.
Pekod, because we are counted, pekod, G-d preserves us, and pekod, He waits to see what we will do with our newfound confidence in our ability to make a difference. So, indeed, Moses was not counting money. Moses was using money to show the people that they were more than mere coins. They were giants.
Not just them. You too.