Over the course of two parshiyot, the Torah has described the construction of the Mishkan and the making of the priestly garments in great detail. Parashat Ki Tisa is introduced with a seemingly unrelated theme: a census of the people in which each person will pay a half-shekel. Why mention a census now?
Broadly speaking, the Torah is alerting us to the dangers inherent in a major national project such as the building of the Mishkan. We know that an earlier project of this scale did not end well, namely, the construction of the Tower of Babel. The precise sin of the builders of the tower is not spelled out, but it is clear that it had something to do with them being a single people with a single purpose: “Behold, one nation and one language there is for them all, and this they have begun to do” (Breishit, 11:6). The problem is not one of achdus; unity is a good thing. Rather, it is the loss of the individual in the process. In such a large-scale and single-minded project, all that matters is the vision and the goal: “We will make for ourselves a name.” And when this happens on the national level, the will of the people often squashes the importance of the individual. Persons become faceless, interchangeable, and of little worth if any.
The midrash says as much when it states that no one would pay any attention at Babel when a person would fall off the tower, but when a brick would fall, they would cry and bewail its loss (Pirkei Di’Rebbe Eliezer, 24). This is no midrashic exaggeration. It is estimated that close to a half-million people died building the Great Wall of China. The building, the edifice, the vision, these are all that matters.
What can be done to protect against this, to preserve the humanity of each individual? In the case of the Tower of Babel, the people were dispersed and given new languages. This created diversity and distinctiveness, ensuring that they would not homogenize into a melting pot of faceless unity again.
In the case of the Mishkan, there was another answer. In Parashat Terumah, the command of the Mishkan opens with each individual’s personal and self-motivated contribution: “From every person whose heart moves him, you shall receive My offering” (25:2). And in this week’s parasha, God proclaims, “Behold, I have called by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur … and with him Ahaliav, son of Achisamak of the tribe of Dan” (31:2,6). People are named; they are unique individuals with special talents that each brings to this task. This continues with the women who spun the wool, linen, and goat’s hair in Vayakhel (35:25-26). We are also told that the washing basin commanded in Ki Tisa was made from the mirrors donated by women who gathered at the Tent of Meeting (38:8). The Torah goes out of its way to give faces and form to some of the individuals involved in this huge national endeavor.
And there is yet another way that the Mishkan differed from the Tower of Babel: those building the tower sought to reach up to the heavens; those building the Mishkan sought to bring God’s presence down to earth. When we attempt to leave our world to reach God, it is easy to make everything in this mundane reality subservient to that lofty goal. In contrast, when we attempt to bring God into our world, we remain anchored to the world in which we live and connected to the people who inhabit it with us.
The command of the census is a part of not losing focus on the individual. By its nature, a census says every person counts. We are not just an abstraction, a “nation.” We are thousands and thousands of separate, distinct people; we mourn every death, and we celebrate every birth. On the other hand, taking a census can bring about the opposite mentality: Everyone is just a number; no individual matters. If ten people die the total number is smaller, but any other ten people will make up the difference. Any one person is fungible. To counteract this, the Torah commands the giving of the half-shekel as part of the census. As the Rabbis explain it, they were not permitted to count individuals directly. Rather, the number of people would be known by the sum of the half-shekels. We can aggregate and count money, not people. One person and one person and one person do not make three people. People must always remain distinct and unique. They will have names, not numbers. They will always be Reuven, Sarah, and Shimon: “Behold, I have called by name.”
And there is another corrective: Shabbat. At the completion of the detailed instructions for the Mishkan, the Torah commands again the observance of Shabbat. Shabbat and Mishkan are almost always juxtaposed, and the implicit message—which the Rabbis made explicit—is clear: you must rest on the Shabbat even if it means interrupting the building of the Mishkan. The project is not what is ultimately important. It does not override all and continue without end. There are things in this world that matter more than building the Mishkan, and Shabbat, with its message of human dignity, is chief among them.
Shabbat proclaims that no living thing, and particularly no human, can be made a slave to his work or a means to an end, even a lofty, religious end like the Mishkan. Humans are fundamentally free; they have a basic right to rest, a right to be free from the unrelenting pressures and demands of the world. It is thus no surprise that Shabbat can be violated to save a human life. A major goal of Shabbat is the recognition of each person’s humanity, a quality which we cannot allow the larger forces in the world to reduce or eradicate. Naming the individuals, refusing to tally people as numbers, and interrupting the building of the Mishkan for a weekly day of rest allowed a national project of supreme importance to continue with enthusiastic participation and without ever losing sight of the face and individuality of each and every person involved.
The loss of the individual is a matter to be feared not just in worldly projects but in ideologies as well. Whether a project or an idea, the person is lost when something else is assigned a position of ultimate importance. To give an ideology supreme importance can be seen as a modern manifestation of the sin of idolatry. If, in the time of the Torah, idolatry was making something a god which was not in fact God, then a contemporary translation of that would be assigning ultimate value to something which is not of ultimate value. The Torah teaches us that, after God, people are of the greatest value, and that the mitzvot are overridden to protect human life. Giving anything else, be it any ideology or vision, more importance than real people is turning that ideology into an idolatry.
This brings us to the Golden Calf. In the building of the Mishkan we saw the faces of some of the individuals involved; in the making of the Calf all we see is a faceless crowd. And far from each person contributing according to his or her personal motivation, the entire people act as one undifferentiated unit: “And the entire people tore off their earrings and brought them to Aharon” (32:3). It is one mob acting in unison, all giving the same thing, all doing the same thing. With the idolizing of the calf came the formation of an unstoppable mob, and any individual—whether Aharon or one of the people—was swept away by its force.
This remains an ongoing struggle. How do we devote our lives to something larger than ourselves without losing sight of the real people in front of us? This can be a problem when dealing with ideologues, even those working for human rights or other social justice causes. One can reach a point where the work is all about the cause and not about the people it is meant to serve. This can also be a problem in religious leadership. The religious leaders that I am most wary of are those who are the self-proclaimed defenders of the faith. Too often, too many people are sacrificed in the name of religion or for the sake of the cause that they believe reigns supreme. I am personally inspired by religious leaders, be it a rabbi or even the current Pope, who believe that their religion is strong enough to defend itself, who understand that their responsibility is to defend and protect the individual. When we build a Mishkan, when we devote our lives to something larger than ourselves, the names and faces of the real people we encounter must always be in front of us. We must always be able to say: “Behold, I have called by name.”