Parashat Ki Tisa begins:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel — a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering….
No one (actually no male) is exempt. Our parasha focuses on this equality of obligation — a rich man is not to give more than half a shekel nor is the poor man to give less. Here, in the sight of God, each person is absolutely equal to all fellow Israelites.
According to the Talmud, during the time when the Temple stood the half-shekel tax was set aside specifically to purchase the daily communal offerings. The sacrifices that were offered to God on behalf of the entire community were to come from all equally.
But it is also important to realize that even here, at the beginning of the time in the wilderness, the Torah already recognizes the existence of rich and poor. All the Israelites were equal, but they were clearly not all the same.
Here, in the case of the half-shekel used for communal offerings, everyone was to contribute equally no matter how rich or poor. However, in the case of the collection of materials for the building of the Mishkan, described two weeks ago in parashat Terumah, the Torah says, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” Each person was asked to give what he could, and it was certainly expected that the rich would give much more.
Thus, the Torah recognizes two realities. Individuals’ circumstances are different. Some can afford to give a lot, others only a little, and provisions are made for this. But it is also true that to be counted as part of a community, it’s necessary to make a contribution, and this is the role of the half-shekel.
It’s no different today. There are times when people are expected to contribute based on their resources — money, special skills, knowledge, or time. Whether the need is a building fund, management of a shul or organization, or teaching adults and children, some have the ability to contribute much more than others.
Other times, everybody contributes equally. The obvious example is the minyan, traditionally 10 men, now often 10 adult Jews, who are required for public prayers. It doesn’t matter if a person knows how to lead the service, is familiar with the prayer book, or even if he or she can read Hebrew. There’s only one question — “are you Jewish?” If the answer is yes, you count.
At the beginning of the parasha, the Hebrew word translated as “each shall pay” is “v’natnu,” spelled vav, nun, tav, nun, vav. It’s a palindrome, spelled the same way forwards and backwards. This teaches us that giving runs in two directions. To be part of the community, to receive its blessings, one is required to make a contribution.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.