Parashat Ki Tisa

  • Rav Meir Shpiegelman


"Ki tisa et rosh benei Yisrael ..." - "When you take the sum of benei Yisrael after their number every man shall give a ransom for HIS soul to the Lord ... that there be no plague when you number them."


The Torah speaks of a certain danger involved in counting the people, against which the machatzit ha-shekel comes to protect. But when we look at who was numbered - those over twenty years of age, in other words, those able to fight in battle - the obvious conclusion is that the head count serves the needs of the military. If so, the question must be asked: what is negative about counting the people in this specific context? A general must know how many soldiers he has for practical, by all means, justifiable reasons - training, battle tactics, etc. Furthermore, when he fights a war, he must be confident that his troops can handle the challenge they are to meet. Why, then, the negative outlook of the Torah on a headcount? Even if the count does not serve military purposes, the question is still valid. Are there not legitimate reasons for a leader to count his people (for example, proper distribution of resources, proper taxing, etc.)? Aren't there justifiable, even necessary, purposes that the census fulfills?


The answer to this question seems clear. The general or leader must know the number of individuals under him for practical reasons, but in that very knowledge lies a potential danger. A general who counts his soldiers can easily precipitate a destructive over-confidence. The general begins to consider the 600,000 soldiers fighting under him. This train of thought can easily lead to a laxness, a tendency not to take every last precaution to assure the top efficiency of the army. Moreover, the general, and equally the people, might be led to place a false confidence in their number, in their own strength, forgetting that it is God who assures our victories and brings our defeats. Lest the people come to say, "it is my own strength and the might of my arm that have brought me this victory." (Devarim 8:17)


Another potential danger lies within the census. Counting heads is an act of recognition of the individual. Here, too, the counting is a positive thing. A leader who acts with the good of the people in mind, paying no attention to needs of specific individuals or minorities, or even worse, who loses touch with the individual and loses sensitivity for his plight, is no leader. On the other hand, political philosophies which speak only of the individual, his rights and privileges, refusing to recognize the existence of a larger whole whose interests must be fulfilled, are equally destructive, and are equally deficient. One who only focuses on the individual, loses sight of the interests of the whole and fails to take necessary actions for the good of the majority because of the negative effects they might have on one or two individuals. Such an attitude results in indecisiveness and inaction.


Thus, the Torah protects against both extremes - on the one hand, lack of confidence and insensitivity to the individual; on the other hand, OVER-confidence in one's powers and loss of sense of people-hood (tziburiyut). The Torah, commands to count - to know the number, to recognize the individual - but also to take the necessary precautions in the form of the "half shekel" given equally by each, stressing an orientation to the group, uniformity, and conformity.


This measure was aimed at the people as much as at the leaders. The same danger which threatens the leader threatens the layman. Each citizen, each soldier must be aware both of his individual voice and responsibility, while at the same time recognizing that he belongs to a larger whole. He must maintain a confidence in his own abilities, those of his leader, and those of the people, while, at the same time, fostering humility and a recognition of his and the group's dependence on God.


At points in the history of benei Yisrael, we find deficiencies in these attributes, although opposite extremes on the two ends - the people and leadership.

Moshe was the type of leader who would lead only a people that wished to follow. "And Moshe ... planted the Tent outside at the camp ... and anyone who sought God [with Moshe as the intermediary] would leave the Camp to the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot 33:7). Moshe refused to lead sheep who did not want to follow, and he required of the individual to initiate his relationship with Moshe and to first accept him as a leader. His was a leadership with acute sensitivity to the individual and to his rights. Sometimes, too much so. Not always did benei Yisrael respond with the incumbent submission and respect.

Even before he becomes a leader, we see Moshe's great sympathy for the individual. He sees a Mitzri taskmaster striking a fellow Jew and responds immediately and decisively by killing the Mitzri. Moshe does not consider the possible consequences for the people. He is overcome by his compassion and zealousness for his fellow Jew, and he must act.

While the quality of sensitivity to the individual induces a decisive, if not rash response on the part of Moshe in one instance, the very same quality brings about indecisiveness and inaction in another. At the end of parashat Balak, we are told of an incident in which parts of benei Yisrael begin to commit incest with benot Mo'av, worship the avoda zara ba'al Pe'or. In this context, Moshe witnesses an act of brazen rebelliousness to both God's and his own authority. Right before his eyes and the eyes of benei Yisrael: "Behold, a man of stature within benei Yisrael came and brought to his brethren a Midyanit woman [and committed incest with her] in the sight OF MOSHE, and in the sight of all of benei Yisrael, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting." At this point, Moshe froze, broken by the act of rebelliousness, and fails to take action against the individual for the good of the people.

Instead, Pinchas must step in and respond with the appropriate act of zealousness, by publicly thrusting a spear through the two sinners, thereby sending a decisive message to the people and quelling the wrath of God, "so the plague was stayed from benei Yisrael."

The deficiency in Moshe was not meekness, but rather an inability to properly deal with the rebellion. (Even here, Moshe does often stand up to the test. See, for example, his response to the rebellion of Korach.) This same quality expresses itself in this week's parasha, with Moshe breaking the luchot, a response to the people's inability to accept God and him as leaders. Here the result was not indecisiveness. If anything, it was the opposite.

If Moshe suffered from overblown sensitivity to and demands of the individual, benei Yisrael responded with the opposite problem - lack of confidence in themselves, and lack of recognition of the active role they had to take in the existence of the nation. Why, when the people mistook Moshe to be dead, did they opt to replace him with the Golden Calf? Why not another human leader? The answer is simple. They lacked self-confidence and the will to take responsibility. They wanted a leader that would answer all their demands, take all the responsibility while asking nothing of them. Many people mistakenly think that after they already have the leader, they no longer must think; they no longer form opinions; they no longer must take responsibility. If it was this type of leader they wanted (and Moshe Rabeinu certainly was NOT this type of leader), only some type of mystical, supernatural, overbearing "being" would do. No human could fulfill this role. Benei Yisrael's sin was rooted primarily in a lack of self-confidence paired with an unwillingness to take responsibility. The two are generally concomitant.

It is incumbent upon every individual within a community to take a stance on the important issues that face that community. If one does not, he will find himself shaking the responsibility in situations he could have well helped improve. The nature of human relations has it that a group generally merits a leader of stature commensurate to the level of the people. When a people lacks confidence, direction and individual responsibility, what results is a Golden Calf. At the same time, each individual must know where his place is within the larger whole and must act accordingly. He must show submission to the needs of the group and to the leader when that is what the situation calls for.

The leader must strive for a similar balance. He must have a clear view of the needs of the community as a whole while maintaining a sensitivity for the individual. He must know when and how to apply power, while all along, never resorting to tyranny, ignoring the contributions and the responsibility of the people or quashing individuality.

It is this balance between the individual and the whole which parashat Shekalim demands of every leader and every individual to strike.