By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
Parashat Ki Tissa
There were no government forms to fill out at Sinai, but in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tissa, Moses is commanded to take a census of the people. This is not the only census mentioned in the Bible. Obviously, census-taking is necessary for the conduct of public affairs, though there is always an inference that every census is accompanied by danger. This seems apt since head counts were necessary to army service and warfare. That seems to be the initiating motivation this time, also.
The command as given is unexpectedly recondite and highly idiomatic. To render it literally we should translate it something like this: “When you lift up the head of each male Israelite according to his enrollment, and each man pays his own ransom to the Eternal as they are enrolled, then there will be no plague among them because they are enrolled” (Exodus 30:12). The controlling Hebrew word (p-k-d), occurring three times, denotes “enlistment” or military “enrollment.”
“Lifting up the head” is, of course, the idiom for taking a head count. Here, at Sinai, though, it also gives the sense that each person is worthy of being seen as an individual. The following verse asks each person to pay the gold or silver equivalent to a half-shekel as a tribute tax for the building of the Tabernacle. Surely, everyone could just throw their fair half-shekel weight of metal into a basket and the metal could be weighed to get an accurate census. But there’s no dignity in that. “Lifting up the head” here means seeing each face as essential to the whole.
“According to his enrollment” reminds us that the responsibility for being counted and for paying the half-shekel stems from being b’nai Israel, “Israelites.” When the slaves came out of Egypt, they left as family units, as clans, and as tribes. But standing at Sinai, building a shared Tabernacle, they are now enrolled by God’s command in one people, whether for military or peaceful purpose.
The dignity of the individual also implies that each one is responsible for paying his own “ransom” — his half-shekel is to be given by no one else. It is his statement on behalf of himself and — if he is married, or married with children — on behalf of his immediate family (for this is always implied).
Last, there is an assertion that failure to pay, failure to be recognized as a member of the Israelites, failure to take responsibility for oneself and one’s family could result in a plague. Here, it is unspecified what kind of plague. Today we might imagine the disease for failure to pay taxes as the “IRS plague.” But the biblical command closes with the third mention of enrollment, so we might venture to say that the plague would be more a matter of destroying the strength of Israel by any who would fail to enlist themselves.
For God to count us, even today, we must lift our own heads, enroll ourselves in our people, take responsibility for paying our own fair share by tax and by participation, and add ourselves to the joint strength of the people of Israel.
Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “The Essential Jewish Stories,” “The Wise Folk of Chelm,” “Bible Dreams,” and other books featured at https://RosselBooks.com. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.