This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa. It begins with the following command: “This is what everyone who is entered into the records shall pay…a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord.” (Exodus 30:13) Soon after the liberation from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the building of the tabernacle is this commandment that everyone must pay taxes to the Jewish people. Unlike the gifts that are collected for the tabernacle’s construction this half-shekel is an obligatory offering. During Temple times this tax was collected during the current Hebrew month of Adar, hence the first Sabbath before the start of this month is still called Shabbat Shekalim.
This tax immediately follows the taking of a census. In fact the intention of this tax was to avert the dangers associated with counting the people. The term census is related to the Latin meaning a penalty. To the ancient mind, counting, and counting people in particular, was fraught with danger. This tax therefore functioned as a ransom, saying in effect, “Take my money rather than my life.”
During King David’s realm it is reported that the Jewish people were afflicted by a terrible plague because of David’s insistence on taking a census. Perhaps this danger was because a census was often conducted in preparation for war. Thus it is a needed reminder. “Beware of numbering the people as you prepare for war. If you go to war soon you will be counting the dead as well as the living.” The march towards war must always be a cautious undertaking.
We live in a time of heightened individualism. We do not feel that the community rises and falls based on our individual actions. It is only our own successes, or failures, that turn on our actions. We rebel against obligations insisting that we are tied to the community. We see ourselves as autonomous individuals. Laws demanding taxes for the community are scorned. Then again perhaps the ancient Israelites felt similarly. In this week’s portion, soon after this commandment follows the sin of the Golden Calf when the people rebel against God and build an idol. Perhaps their sin was a result of the excessive demands the community now placed upon them.
Likewise we live in a time when we feel that the fate of our people is not tied to our individual actions. We do not however believe that numbering the people will lead to plagues. Then again our sense of commitment to the Jewish people grows stronger when we feel that we are threatened or in danger. The overwhelming participation in the recent AIPAC Conference in Washington DC is indicative of this. The fear that Iran might soon acquire nuclear weapons and that might then threaten the Jewish state is palpable. Our sense of obligation grows.
But why must fear be the primary source of obligation to the community? Why can’t joy also be demanding? Why can’t our sense of obligation to the Jewish people be a constant in our lives? Why must it always be fear that motivates? Let it instead be joy. Let our commitment to the Jewish people be a constant hum throughout our lives. Let it be akin to the wordless melodies and niggunim of the Hasidic masters.
Taxes might indeed contain moral lessons. A half-shekel does not appear a steep price. That might very well be the lesson. It is the smallest of amounts, it is the tiniest of obligations, that begins our commitment to the Jewish people. Let this obligation begin with joy!