K Tisa (March 18, 2017)
Stand Up and Be Counted
Parashat Ki Tisa is such a rich portion that this opening section often is overlooked. After all, when you have the story of the Golden Calf, who cares about a boring census?
Or is it boring? Here is a people, fresh out of slavery, being asked to stand up and be counted, starting with the age of 20 — the age when they (men, of course, not women) would be eligible for military service. By stepping forth and enrolling for service, Israelite men were making a statement: They were agreeing to defend their infant community against older and better organized civilizations.
Were they afraid? You bet they were! That’s what the half-shekel payment was all about. By offering this token payment, they hoped to ward off misfortune in the form of plague and who knows what else. But why? Why would putting your name on a list make you vulnerable?
We don’t have to look too far for the answer. Do the names Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney mean anything to you? Within my lifetime, people were threatened, beaten and killed for putting their names on a list — a list of eligible voters in Mississippi. Registering to vote only 50 years ago cost lives, and in some cases, helping people to register was just as dangerous. By simply signing your name, you were putting your life in danger.
The Israelites feared putting their names on a list — but they did it anyway. And the solution — the half-shekel payment — was surprisingly far-sighted and democratic. Everyone (or at least every eligible male, ladies came much later in history) paid the same fee. The rich couldn’t bribe their way to safety, and the poor couldn’t shirk the responsibility. The price was set low so that everyone could and had to contribute.
This is amazingly democratic. At least on paper, no one was exempt from this responsibility. Later, we will see a list of reasons why men were not sent to war. If you had just gotten married or built a house, you were given a temporary pass. Such men, it was supposed, had too much to lose and were at high risk for desertion. Throughout history, there have been conscientious objectors and outright draft dodgers. One hundred percent compliance with any law or rule is impossible. Still, this passage sets the bar high.
These Israelite men were accepting a responsibility to protect their infant community, not in subservience to a temporal ruler but as a sign of obedience to God. They were standing up to be counted before the community and before the Lord. For a group of people fresh out of slavery, that’s quite remarkable. Will there be backsliding? Of course! (The Golden Calf story is coming right up.) Still, the census rule is on the books — a good start for a new nation.
Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.
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