Archive for February, 2014

Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim: Known By Our Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim 

 
“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Shmot/ Exodus 30:12)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
It’s been a challenge to get a regular Torah commentary out every week with all the changes here in the Hudson Valley- all good ones!- so I appreciate your patience and understanding. This week, in addition to the regular Torah reading, we have a special reading from the Torah which describes a half-shekel tax paid by each Israelite. We read this passage before the new moon of Adar (or, this year, second Adar, as it’s a leap year), which thus comes about 6 weeks before Passover. Historically, the half-shekel was collected in the spring for the upkeep of the ancient Temple; the occasion of the yearly reading is called Shabbat Shekalim. 
 
On a practical level, the half-shekel tax was used for both communal religious needs and also as a means of counting the people; most commentaries understand the linkage between census and collection of the half-shekel as teaching that the Israelites themselves were not counted directly, but rather the coins collected were numbered in their stead. Our friend Rashi brings an ancient teaching that the “evil eye” is attracted to numbered things, so in order to avoid a plague or calamity of some sort, better to count the money rather than number the people. (We can also note in passing that the atonement mentioned above may refer to atoning for the Golden Calf, after which there was a plague, but let’s leave more on that for another day.) 
 
Perhaps the notion of the “evil eye” is mere superstition, but then, it’s interesting that this conception of reified negativity is framed in terms ofseeing. What would it mean to count the Israelites directly? It might mean seeing each person not as an individual but as mere “human resources” (I have never liked the moral implications of that term) for military or economic production. You might think it’s even more dehumanizing to count the coins instead, but maybe numbering the half-shekels is a way of forcing the officials to realize that each person has something to contribute, each person is equal in the eyes of God, each person is known not by size of donation but by a willingness to help build a holy community. 
 
Maybe the “evil eye” in taking the census means seeing others as just numbers, in which case, it’s hardly a superstition but an all-too-common contemporary problem. We are not numbers, nor statistics, nor mere economic units; we are all, each in our own way, contributors towards a society in which equality and dignity should be holy values. Counting coins instead of people reminds us that the people themselves are more than just units in a ledger; nurturing and valuing the contributions of each individual should be the goal of a holy community. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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