Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim
At first glance, the census of the Israelites is an interesting concept. On the one hand, we are told to count each person in such a way that their uniqueness is not taken into account. On the other hand, we are taught that we are each created uniquely in the image of God. Should the specifics of who is present in the Israelite community matter just as much, if not more, than how many mouths there are to feed or how many people there are to fight in the army?
On Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Adar, we read about the census in Exodus 30:11-16 in detail. The Torah’s way of handling the contradiction presented above is that each person would contribute a half shekel coin, the monetary unit at the time. And it is the half shekel coins that are tallied to determine the size of the population rather than the number of heads present.
As each person was counted, the people “passed over” into a second group, the way one might move coins from one pile into another as they were counted (verse 13). The transition from not having been counted to having "passed over" to those who had been accounted for was in no way a simple financial matter between citizen and State. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expresses in Exodus 30:13 in his translation and commentary on The Pentateuch:
There is no higher nobility, nor is there any deeper feeling of happiness than to belong to those who are counted for God and by God...Only with the consciousness of resolving to do the whole of one’s duty does one pass over, out of the meaningless crowd of the selfish masses, into the ennobled sphere of those counted by God, into the happy consciousness of being counted by God. (Hirsch, p.578)
May we each find ways of feeling that we count in God’s eyes and in the eyes of our community. May we strive to find ways to acknowledge one another out of the meaningless masses to truly appreciate the unique gifts that we each have to offer.
Rabbi Gail Swedroe