Joining the Nation
There is a Jewish custom not to count people directly. When a minyan of ten men needs to be determined it is the custom to read a verse containing ten words, and by assigning a word to each person it can be ascertained whether ten men are present. If any words are left unassigned, then you don't have a minyan. The basic explanation for this practice is fear of generating an "evil eye", ayin hara. Counting can be interpreted as an overly proud act. It is as if to say, look how many people we are! The ayin hara comes to make people more humble. It is as if to say, you think you are so great and have so many friends and people around, I'll destroy some of them and then we'll see how great you are.
To avoid this problem, we pay deference to the ayin hara and count by verses. We learn the danger of counting Israelites most clearly from King David. He counted his troops and immediately brought a plague upon them in which many people died.1. Parshat Ki Tisa is the source for the idea of counting people indirectly. In the case of this parsha, the people are counted by means of the money they have contributed. Each person gives a half shekel and when the money is counted the size of the nation can be determined. Thus, Rashi explains the verse "...and each man shall give redemption money for his soul to G-d when they are counted, thus there won't be a plague among them in their being counted"2 to mean that the natural consequence of counting, plague, can be averted by using money to count. This is the traditional explanation.
I would like to offer a novel and more political explanation for this verse. If one investigates when the Israelites are counted in the Torah, one will notice that all the counting is either before a battle or after some serious casualties have occurred among the people. It seems that the counting is for the very real need to know the size of the army that can be mustered from the people. This also explains why only men above the age of 20 are counted. There is no discrimination toward the young or the women. They are also part of the nation , but they do not fight , or at least are not expected to fight. So the counting is part of the war preparations and very useful for the leaders of the people.
The money can thus be explained as yearly dues. To be a part of the Boy Scouts you must pay your dues. The privileges of membership come at a price. So too the privilege of being part of and defended by the Israelite nation. But people my shirk this responsibility either because they want to me a "free rider" and gain the protection of the people without having to pay for it, or because they are frightened to take part in the battles. But if a nation is to be strong, then all the member must participate in communal needs. They must fund and fight in its wars. Therefore G-d threatens the people with a deadly plague if they do not take the political responsibilities. I can then explain the concept of "redemption money for his soul" to mean money to justify his existence in the nation. If he does not pay, he will be cut off from the people and his soul will be "lost." Essentially the money is membership money. And the plague is intended to induce people to comply with their citizenship responsibilities.
The amount of money that must be paid is a half Shekel which is 10 Gera: "This is what everyone who is counted must give: a half a holy Shekel. The Shekel is 20 Gera and half of it is the donation to G-d."3 The symbolism of giving 10 Gera can be derived from the writings of the Maharal. 10 symbolized the unity of parts. 10 is the first number after one to be a unit. A minyan which is 10 is the minimum number to have a united congregation. G-d created the world with 10 sayings. A minyan has many different people, but when they come together they are a unified whole. So too , creation has many different things going on in it, but it is still an elegant whole. 10 symbolizes also a perfect whole which has different faculties each itself perfected. Each Israelite must join the whole by giving his 10 Gera. He must First have attained the level of being 10. He must have developed all his faculties and become a unified whole. He cannot join the whole unless he is has first perfected himself. When we join the community, if we are lacking , then we will bring flaws into the community. This inner perfection must come first.
The fact that we give a half shekel means that no matter how much we have perfected ourselves, we are always incomplete until we join the community. No person can ever really be considered whole unless he has a relationship with other. He must give of his time to others and obligate himself in their needs. Man is a social being and to deny this is to lack true humanity.
The same holds true in personal relationships. We must first develop ourselves and be content and stable people. Only then when we are not needy can we recognize that even so we are still a half and then we must join with another. Our joining must come from a place of completeness. Otherwise we will bring our flaws into our relationships. We will create a co-dependent relationship. But if we have developed our personalities properly, then we will bring something positive into our relationships.
Both in the community and in our inter-personal relationships we must go through three stages. First we must develop all our 10 faculties and become complete independent people. Then from this self-assured and healthy state, we must choose to become interdependent with others. This is means we must view ourselves as being halves. And only after we have joined with others do we enter the third stage, being truly one.
Rabbi Nachum Danzig, JCT alumnus, teaches in the Overseas Student Division.
(1) (2)Exodus 30:12 (3)Exodus 30:13 (4)
© Nachum Danzig