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Rabbi Ari Enkin

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35), and is it ever action-packed! It has the national census, more on the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the painful episode of the Golden Calf and much more! In fact, Ki Tisa (meaning “when you lift up”) is the longest Torah portion in the book of Exodus!

In this week’s Torah column, let us focus on the census. The census was not a door-to-door interview; nor was it a roll call/head count in the town square. In fact, it is actually forbidden to count people according to Torah law! So how was the census carried out? Each adult Jew was required to donate a half-shekel coin. The coins were then counted, and presto, they knew how many Jews there were! Let’s look at the verses:

“And God spoke to Moses saying: ‘when you take a census of the children of Israel to know their numbers… This is what they shall give: all who are to be counted shall give a one-half shekel coin of the sacred shekel coins…”

Although the above is a proper translation of the relevant verses, it is interesting to note that the actual Hebrew wording that the Torah uses for “when you take a census of the children of Israel to know their numbers” is “when you lift up the Children of Israel to know their numbers.” Indeed, there are a number of questions and oddities in the way the Torah commands Moses to take the census. What is going on here? Why the cryptic wording and instructions?

Making Every Person Feel Worthy

The commentators explain that all the cryptic wording throughout the episode of the census is intended to teach us sensitivity towards people and to learn how others should be treated. For example, we are required to take a census, but at the same time we are required to “lift up” every person. We have to make every person feel special and feel important. The Torah tells us that no one was exempt from donating the half-shekel coin. It did not matter if they were rich, poor or destitute: each one had to come up with the coin for the census.

Imagine the line leading to the “coin deposit booth” at census time. The rich would quickly drop their half shekel coin into the box and be off on their way. These rich people were probably thinking, “Half a shekel (about two cents)? No problem!” Half a shekel was nothing for some people. But can you imagine how difficult it might have been for some of the poor people? How do you think they felt standing in line with the rich?

The Torah is sending a message to those manning the census booths: Make everyone feel equal. Show sensitivity to those who might find it difficult to part with a half-shekel. “Lift them up!” – make them feel special! Make them realize that they, too, are an indispensable and important component of the nation. Say a kind word. Give them a pat on the back. That is how to “count” or to “lift up” the less fortunate.

This lesson has relevance today. We, too, must always do our best to make every person feel special. It does not matter what a person’s financial status, social status, professional status, or any status is. Every person is special and unique, and if we can put a smile on another person’s face by making him or her feel that way, then we should definitely do so.

Click below to read more Living Torah articles on this week’s Torah portion:

1. The Lord is Our Landlord

2. Living Torah: Holiness in Time and Space