This week, after reading through Mishpatim, with its laws between Man and Man, Man and God, and Man and Ox, we will read Parshat Shekalim, which is about counting.
Wait, wait hold on there Your Excellency, we have to count in a very specific way. We can’t count by numbers, 1 Jew 2 Jew 3 Jew, because that will lead to a plague, apparently. So count by things! Let them bring in, I dunno, sticks, stones, something. No, we have to count them with money. I guess that makes sense, we could raise some money for The Tabernacle Fund, how about a nice round figure of a shekel a person? Nope. Half a shekel.
What I’m trying to say is, this is a weird kind of mitzvah.
Yet, I think it can give us an important insight into how the Torah resolves the tension between two competing values, of the rights of the individual and the good of the community. The tension between these two values animates many philosophical discussions, secular and religious. Of course, such values are only healthy when they are in tension, because an extreme in either direction is a bad thing. And I believe that the way the mitzvah of the half shekel is structured shows how Judaism keeps those two in balance.
How? So let us think this out. How does valuing the role of the community to an extreme become a bad thing? Well, if individuals are not seen as having their own rights and are merely seen as tools for the greater good of the community, it can lead to those rights being trampled upon for the greater good. Such a community would view its members as not individuals in their own right, with their identities, contributions, strengths and weaknesses, but merely as another faceless statistic in the crowd. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Nazi concentration camps, where inmates were stripped of any identity, their name, their clothes, their appearance, and given numbers, like commodities.
Thus, to counteract this notion, the Torah demands that we not count people as mere numbers from an undifferentiated mass, but as individuals, each equally valued and each with their own contribution to make to society. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 38 may deepen our understanding of this concept:
אדם יחידי נברא, ומפני מה….תנו רבנן: להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא; שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד – וכולן דומין זה לזה, אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון -ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו,
Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mould of the first man, and not one resembles the other.
Each person, created in the mold of Adam HaRishon and in the image of their creator, is a unique coin that is valid legal tender in the economy of Jewish society.
But, on the flip side of the coin (haha), it is possible to lean too far towards the value of individuality. It is possible for a person to see themselves as the only worthwhile end, that they owe nothing to society at large, and they should only be concerned with their own achievements and their own aggrandizement, subscribing to the idea of greed as good and selfishness as virtue. These people do not recognize the validity of other people’s needs, and they view their half-shekel as the only viable gold standard. To those people, the Torah says, you are never truly free and isolated from larger society. You are not a unit unto yourself. You are a half-shekel, you are incomplete and dependent on others, and you have no identity that exists totally independent from the world around you.
Thus, the Torah strikes a delicate balance between the competing ideas of the rights of the individual and the needs of the community. People are not mere numbers, and we value each individuals unique qualities and contributions, and do not see them as mere means to an end, but at the same time, each person must recognize that they do not exist independently of society, that they are necessarily incomplete and debt to those around them.
To end off, I’d like to quote an interesting/weird midrashic statement (Megillah 13b) and explain it in light of what we’ve been saying:
אם על המלך טוב יכתב לאבדם ועשרת אלפים ככר כסף וגו’ אמר ריש לקיש: גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שעתיד המן לשקול שקלים על ישראל, לפיכך הקדים שקליהן לשקליו.והיינו דתנן: באחד באדר משמיעין על השקלים ועל הכלאים.
“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver”, Reish Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the One whose word created the world, that Haman would weigh out shekalim in order to attain the consent of Achashveros to destroy the Jewish people. He [G-d] therefore preceded their shekalim to his, and for this reason we learn that on the first of Adar an announcement is to be made concerning the shekalim. (Megillah 13b)
So, Reish Lakish says that God knew that Haman would weigh out shekalim, so he gave B’nei Yisrael the mitzvah of shekalim to counteract that. How does that make sense? If we look at Haman’s case for the extermination of the Jews, one of the thing he says is that they are מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, “scattered and dispersed among the nations,” which seems to be not only a statement on the Jewish people’s place in Diaspora, but a statement about the Jewish community itself, that it is scattered and and lacking in unity, full of different factions and competing agendas, each believing that the larger community should simultaneously accommodate every aspect of their agenda and deny the place of other agendas in their community. And the antidote to this observation of Haman is this mitzvah of the half-shekel, and the lesson contained therein.