The beginning of this portion, Ki Tissa, starts with a census. God commands Moses to count the heads of the Children of Israel.
This census is interesting, especially when compared to the two previous Torah portions.
Starting in T'rumah, God commands the building of the Tabernacle - the Mishkan. God proceeds to delineate very concrete and deliberate specifications with regard to its construction. Cubits, thread, stone, ink ... all are discussed. The portion almost reads like an architectural digest at times.
But despite its lengthy measurements of building and painting and constructing, the ultimate goal is not the place itself. The sanctuary is not an end to itself, just as our beautiful building here at 115 Dudley Drive is not an end to itself.
The construction of the Tabernacle is so that we can better feel God's presence dwell amongst us. As was discussed in adult ed last week, it is not God that needs or desires the Mishkan. It is us. We need it. We need a specific place that is special and beautiful, a place dedicated to the worship of our God and the learning of our religion.
Here in the beginning of Ki Tissa, we can understand this more, as God has Moses count the Israelites. It's important to realize that this census occurs after the specifications of the previous two portions, because it shows us that people. matter. More than the gold, more than the fine linens ... Even more than the Torah itself. It is the people. It is us.
There is a very strange line in the second verse of this week's portion.
God spoke to Moses, saying, when you add up the heads of the children of Israel, each of them shall give a ransom for his life to God when counting them, so there will not be a plague among them when counting them.
What?! Did we read that correctly? As we see later, Each Israelite must pay a half-shekel so there not be a plague? What is going on here?
Our Torah commentary points out that in the book of Samuel, David takes a census of his people. What follows is a plague upon the people.
It's understood that counting people is not a positive thing. We see this superstition today: When counting men to see if there is a minyan of 10 present, some Jews count by using a Hebrew phrase that has 10 words, rather than count from 1 to 10.
Here, there is an even stronger sentiment. Counting people can help to give a leader control over his people. As Dick Friedman points out in the footnote, conscription, forced labor and taxation are some ways where counting can be used a means of subjugation and authority.
The Torah goes to extra effort to show us the opposite. We should not count people. Rather, we must make sure that people count. Therefore, each person contributes a half-shekel, displaying both ownership and leadership in the continuity of our people.
We construct the Mishkan, yes, but what is more important is that we continually construct ourselves and our community. When each of us shows ownership and leadership here in our community, God indeed dwells amongst us in our Mishkan.