IT WAS just on Parashas Mishpatim that we read the section about Machatzis HaShekel as Maftir for Parashas Shekalim. Now we get to review it this week at the beginning of Parashas Ki Sisa, where Moshe is commanded by God to count the Jewish people using a half-shekel contribution by each individual Jew.
As most people may already know, we don’t count Jews, a halachah learned from this week’s parsha. For example, you’re not supposed to walk into a minyan and actually count people to see if you have 10 men. Instead, the one doing the counting usually recites a verse with 10 words as they take note of each individual. When the words run out, they know they have counted 10 people.
This has played havoc with taking a census. Governments are constantly taking a tally of their citizens, and many Torah Jews, concerned about this law, have often abstained. Even though, as we see with counting the members of a minyan, there are ways around the problem, some still feel uncomfortable with the idea.
What’s the big deal? The Torah tells us:
When you take the sum of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to God an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted. (Shemos 30:12)
Plague. The problem with counting individual Jews is plague. So, instead, rich or poor, young or old, a person gave a half-shekel, and the total of half-shekels at the end told the leaders just how many Jews there were at the time.
And why does counting Jews result in plague? Rashi explains that part:
Then there will be no plague among them: the evil eye has power over numbered things, and pestilence comes upon them, as we find in Dovid’s time (II Shmuel 24). (Rashi)
Apparently Dovid HaMelech took a census of the people in his time and forgot the halachah. He counted people, and they started to die from plague. The Torah wasn’t kidding about its threat which, according to Rashi, and really the Talmud, doesn’t only apply to people. Ayin Hara can affect anything for a number of reasons, but especially if they are counted.
Ayin Hara? An evil eye? Really?
From time immemorial, mankind has grappled with the idea of an evil, sabotaging force. In a God-run world, one expects good to always succeed and evil to fail, good things to happen to good people and bad things to bad people. When the results are twisted, it can only be a cynical evil force at work, like an eerie evil eye.
Is it just an eye, and not two? Is the eye part of someone’s head, like our eyes are, or does it merely exist as some kind of eye in the sky? And what’s its source of power that it can even hurt people whom God would otherwise leave alone? And what does it have against counted things?
You have been shown, in order to know that God, He is God; there is none else besides Him. (Devarim 4:35)
No one even stubs a finger if it is not decreed in Heaven. (Chullin 7b)
Well, doesn’t this just change everything? If God is the only power, then the Ayin Hara has none of its own. It’s just another instrument of God’s justice, and the question is why, how? What does Divine justice have to do with eyes?
The Talmud says:
Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi said: An eglah arufah was only brought because of tzari-ayin—stinginess. (Sotah 38b)
An eglah arufah was an unworked calf whose neck was broken as part of the atonement process for a mysteriously murdered wayfarer. It was a whole procedure outlined at the end of Parashas Ki Seitzei, carried out by the city to which the wayfarer was closest when he was found. Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi said that such an incident occurred because of tzari-ayin, the stinginess of the town.
In other words, no murder is accidental, even the ones we treat as accidental. Every death is God-arranged and approved. Likewise, knowing the cause of death is also a matter of Hashgochah Pratis, Divine Providence. God can either arrange for the cause of death to be known, or hidden. And in a case of murder, God forbid, for the murderer to be found or to escape.
Thus, if some town finds itself having to carry out an eglah arufah ceremony, it is their Divine Providence. The person who died was meant to die. The person who killed them will be judged for doing so, and pay for it at the right time in the right way. But the town by which it happened was guilty of their own sin, and that, said Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi, was tzari-ayin. They were stingy, and God “rewarded” their stinginess with an unresolved murder and the eglah arufah process.
Is stinginess really that bad?
HOW WOULD you feel if you gave someone money to give to a friend in need, and they took most of it for themself? Cheated, right? Offended, correct? Wouldn’t you confront the person with, “What did you do?! I gave you that money to give to someone else, and you kept it for yourself?!”
In their defense, they would probably answer you, “I DID give it to the person…well, at least some of it. I just thought since I was helping you out, I should get some of it for myself too!”
“Chutzpah!” would probably be the response of many people. Some might even go so far as to call the person a thief!
And yet, do we consider what God calls us? After all, He gave us all of our money and possessions to do His bidding, to fulfill some mitzvah which also includes give tzedakah. And since God is generous, He expects us to be generous with HIS money and possessions.
So we share a little and give a little, keeping most of it for ourselves. And we feel generous because we believe it all belongs to us, and that giving even a little bit is something amazingly kind…until someone shows up accidentally murdered and the townspeople are forced to rethink the way they LOOK at their blessings in life.
And it doesn’t have to be such a severe message. God has different ways of indicating the same flaw to us. It can be unexpected personal financial loss, or an inability to spend what we have, or to enjoy what we spend. Even a plague can severely limit how we dispose of our income.
One of Yosef’s enactments as second-in-command over Egypt was to have people move from city to city, so that everyone would feel like strangers, and be humble. This way his own family, who were strangers in a foreign land, would not feel different from the local inhabitants and therefore, more at home. It was the famine that made that possible.
When the opposite is true, people tend to become absorbed in their own worlds and lifestyles, and forget about others. They can even come to resent those who upset either one of these, looking at them with an ayin ra, an evil eye. Consumed with self-importance, they look down on others less fortunate than they are.
Stand up and be counted? Sit down and blend in, the Torah says. Be a hero, but for the sake of others, not for your own sake. And to get this all-important lesson across, everyone gave only a half-shekel to be counted, making the point that they are only part of the equation, not all of it.
THE GOLDEN calf was the symbol of a desire to go the self-important route. It was an abandonment to the satiation of personal pleasure regardless of the cost to others, or to oneself, down the road. A calf is the symbol of responsibility-less youth, and gold is the symbol of perpetuity. The instigators wanted eternal youth.
The parah adumah, or red heifer, the subject of this week’s Maftir, represented the opposite. The color of blood, it was a blatant reminder that life is fleeting and we are vulnerable. It was a heifer, a mother, responsible with an eye to the future, what every calf must become at some time.
The laws concerning the purification process of which it was a part fall into the category of chukim, statutes that defy human logic. This reminds us that everything in life is a function of the will of God, that may or may not make sense to us, but to which we must remain loyal anyhow.
In the end, the golden calf and the parah adumah represent two very different approaches to life, Eisav’s approach, and Ya’akov’s approach. Eisav was an eat, drink, and be merry kind of guy, prepared to let the future take care of itself. Ya’akov was the opposite. He lived in the moment, but to make it a sturdy bridge to a meaningful future.
And that’s okay, for Eisav. Most of his descendants will not go to the World-to-Come, so this is their time for ultimate pleasure. Well, limited ultimate pleasure. If they don’t enjoy themselves now, within limits, then when will they?
But a Jew is supposed to live on track to get to the World-to-Come. They are supposed to do today whatever is necessary to get there tomorrow. Once, Ya’akov was a twin of Eisav, but then he broke away and became a Yisroel, and being his descendants, are supposed to do likewise.