The plague and the half-shekel cure

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa begins with the threat of a plague. God orders a census to be taken, and then says that we must use a half shekel to be counted in order that “no plague may come upon them.” (Exodus 30:12)

It’s a strange passage. What’s so bad about a census? Why would it lead to plague? Why does giving a half-shekel protect us from the plague?

Rashi gives us a clue by pointing us to an episode in the book of Samuel, where King David performs a census on the people. There, King David seems to order the census with greed, counting his people like one would count treasure to make himself feel strong and powerful. We learn that the spiritual danger of a census is arrogance. Look how much I have, look how mighty I am. Nothing can stop me! 

Counting using the humble half-shekel is the antidote to arrogance. The Torah tells us that the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less. Everyone is equal. This reminds us of our core Jewish value: all life, made in the image of God, is infinitely valuable –  whether young or old, rich or poor, movie star or you and me. This is a critical value to remember, now and always.

Further, we use the half shekel to count ourselves because it reminds us that each of us is only a half; each of us is incomplete. While we all have infinite value, we do not have infinite independence. We all have a missing piece. We are inter-dependent – Every aspect of our lives relies on someone else to make it possible: the water we drink, the food we eat, the homes we dwell in, the roads we drive on, the garbage that gets taken away, the education we give our children, the medical care we receive, and on and on and on.

For so much of our lives this interdependence is critical, good and holy. Events like Coronavirus serve as a powerful reminder of how interconnected we are while also reminding us that interdependence does come with some risk. But the answer to that risk is not to forgo interdependence. Now is not the time for hoarding, isolation and every man for himself. Now is the time to double down on the ties that bind us together!

Think about the other half of your shekel – all the people with whom you are interdependent: colleagues, neighbors, family, workers, friends, service providers,  etc. In the coming days, safely, kindly, patiently, reach out to them! Show them love and affection and concern. Help them if you they need help and you can. And do your best to welcome the love and affection and concern that others show to you.

If you have neighbors who lack social connection, it is more urgent than ever to reach out, check in, and make connections. All of this can be done safely.

For those who have housekeepers, babysitters, etc who depend on the income they make from you to pay rent and buy food, do you very, very best to keep paying them. Remember how dependent you are on them all year round to live your life. Just as you depend on them all year round, they depend on you.

Sooner or later this reality will change and pass. What our next reality looks like depends on you and me. May the lessons of the half shekel, the equal, infinite value of all human life, humility, and inter-dependence guide us today as we shape our collective future.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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