Parshat Ki Tisa opens with a census and the requirement to give money rather than to be counted directly. What – other than superstition – is the point of this? I believe that the Torah is telling us a critical message about the worth of each person. Human beings cannot be quantified, only objects can be quantified. People are not numbers that can be added and summed up into a larger total. It was the Nazis – yimach shemam – who put numbers on people. (This is a point that Levinas makes about the dangers of the abstraction of Greek thought, and the unique contribution of Jewish thought and the irreducible relation of the face-to-face encounter with the other). One person and one person and one person do not make three people, but they remain Reuven, Sarah, Shimon. Chaviv Adam shenivrah bi’tzelem. Each person is a whole world – olam maleh. This is a critical message that we as rabbis must remember – there is a tendency to focus on numbers – how many people were at the drasha, how many people came to the program, etc. and lose sight of the fact that the most impactful work that we do is when we connect to individuals, give them our full attention, and make a difference in their lives.
In this vein, we can understand why the contributions were given and used in the way they were. All gave an equal amount, for each individual, regardless of wealth and society, is of infinite , irreducible value, and thus no one can give more than the other, for all are equal in this infinity. And every shekel is a half-shekel, for while each person is an olam maleh, no one is an island. We all are interdependent, all need each other, are only whole when we are completed by the other. It is only then that we form something greater than ourselves, can be the foundation (the silver sockets) for something transcendent – the mishkan – and can create a holy community that will allow God to dwell in our midst (v’asu…vi’shakhanti bi’tokham – note the use of plural. God dwells amongst Klal Yisrael, not with the individual).
To value the individual without concern for the community can lead to a self-absorbed individualism and to rejection of any transcendent value beyond the individual. To value the community without concern for the individual is a collectivism that can lead to totalitarianism. The foundation of a holy community can only be built upon a recognition of the infinite and irreducible value of every individual, with the paired recognition that we can never be complete without each other, and can never reach transcendence without being part of a larger community. Va’asu li mikdash, vi’shakhanti bi’tokham.