When the census-taker made his rounds in ancient Israel, he didn’t
bring a calculator or an abacus on which to record the number of
persons in each household, nor did he distribute questionnaires for the
people to fill out and return. Instead, he collected a half-shekel from
every Jew in the land, and by counting the coins in his bag, he arrived at
the new population figure.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are told that this indirect method of
census-taking was employed because an actual head count might
cause harm to the people. But this leads us to ask: How could harm
arise from Hashem’s expression of endearment by counting His
people? What difference could there possibly be between counting
people directly or indirectly?
Furthermore, if a collection of coins was require to determine the
population figures, why did the Torah specify the half-shekel in
Let us consider for a moment. Contemporary Western society
places great emphasis on the overriding importance of the individual.
Collective society is only there to accommodate all its individuals, to
safeguard their individual rights and privileges. The responsibilities of
the individual to society are largely ignored. According to the
contemporary Western value system, the individual may not encroach
on his brother’s space, but he is not his brother’s keeper either. The
result is a society that endeavors to protect the life and liberty of each
individual but encourages him to live in egocentric spiritual isolation.
The Torah concept of the individual, on the other hand, is tempered
with a strong sense of community. Our Sages consider each individual
person a world unto himself, of such transcendent importance that the
entire universe could have been created for his sake alone. And yet, the
individual is not an island apart. He is part of the broader community, to
which he bears significant responsibilities and from which he draws
An individual, no matter how brilliant and talented, is limited in his
scope, but the power and potential of a unified community are virtually
limitless. In this case, the whole is undoubtedly greater than the sum of
its parts. The individual who connects with the community assumes an
additional, higher identity as part of this greater whole.
Had the census process taken the form of a head count it would
have set each individual squarely on the stage by himself - if only for a
brief moment - and drawn Heavenly attention to his flaws and virtues.
Very few individuals are worthy and virtuous enough to withstand such
scrutiny and come away unharmed..
When the census taker counted the coins he had collected,
however, there was no longer an identifiable connection between the
coins and the people they represented. In effect, then, the collective
population was determined without ever highlighting the individual - with
all his faults and shortcomings. The half-shekel underscores this
symbolism. Each of us is only a “half,” and we only become a “whole” by
connecting with the broader community.
A rich, populous country amassed a fearsome mercenary army and
invaded one of its small, impoverished neighbors. The king of the small
country rallied his people, but the aggressors enjoyed such an
overwhelming military advantage that resistance seemed hopeless. All
international observers predicted defeat. But to the amazement of all,
the defenders snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and expelled the
“It is really quite simple,” said the king at the victory celebration. “I
drew my soldiers from the same district and similar backgrounds. They
knew and cared for each other, and each knew what was on the other’s
mind almost before he said it. That army of ferocious mercenaries was
an assembly of individuals, but we were a group - unified as one man
with one goal in our hearts. It was no contest.”
In our own lives, we sometimes feel a sense of aimlessness and
loss of direction, a sense of isolation. Very often, these feelings are
signs of a loosening of our attachment to the community. No matter how
talented and successful we may be as individuals, we can only achieve
our full potential by connecting with the overall community, by sharing
its pain and its joy. Only in this way can we also draw on the collective
strength and merit and bring true peace of mind and fulfillment into our