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This week’s Parsha begins with God’s commandment to Moshe to take a census of the Jewish people. Taking a census of the population is something that governments do in order to keep track of how many citizens they have. There is something interesting though regarding the way in which the Torah commands this count of the Jewish people to take place. On one hand, Moshe is supposed to take a census, but on the other hand he is not allowed to count the people, rather the information is collected by counting coins instead of people – "so that there will not be a plague among them."1 It is implied that counting people is forbidden, as it may bring on the evil eye. However, if it is not advised to count people, why have them counted in the first place?
Additionally, the word the Torah uses for counting or taking a census is very unusual. Rather than say ‘Timne’ or ‘Tispor’, the traditional words meaning ‘count’, we find the words ‘Ki Tisa’ which literally means, “when you lift the head of the Jewish People.” Why doesn't the verse use one of the traditional words that refer to counting?
There is a very significant lesson here regarding human nature. We can understand from the commandment to count the people of Israel, that there two conflicting human needs within each of us. On the one hand we all strive to be unique and special, to stand out and become someone. On the other hand, we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, part of a group or community, most of all, we want to belong. How can we belong and stand out at the same time? When counting the entire population these conflicting human needs are magnified. When so many people are counted, one might feel that he or she is just a number, one in many millions, perhaps even insignificant. Yet one cannot ignore the fact that a census is very important to understand the power of the entire people together.
Therefore, in Judaism a census is done through a counting of coins rather than people. Jewish wisdom is teaching us that a census is not just about counting every person, rather making every person count. Everyone must give half a shekel, giving a little of themselves, their earnings, towards a larger goal and mission that cannot be completed without them. Each and every Jew is integral, the mission can only be completed if everyone participates and takes part together. The words ‘Ki Tisa’ are very precise, ‘when you lift the head of the Jewish people’, meaning, they must be counted and accounted for in a way that they know they matter and count.
This is why when God blesses Avraham that he will have many children, He uses two examples, that his descendants will be ‘like the stars in the sky and the sand by the seashore’2.The sand is special in it that one grain alone is worthless, but together, a beautiful white sand beach is formed, its beauty comes from the blending together of every grain into one. The stars are different though, there are also millions of stars but each one is a world in it of itself, they each have a name and a specific orbit. The Jewish people embody both of these elements, each one is a star onto themselves, and together we form something that no individual can create.
Through the counting of the Jewish people in this week’s Torah portion, we are taught the importance of recognizing the special qualities of each individual, yet at the same time understanding the power of unity and being a part of something greater than ourselves.