Sometimes we wonder whether such puny individuals as ourselves can make an impact on world events, whether we can make a real difference in God’s universe. Most of us would give a negative response to such questions. Parashas Ki Tisa, however, comes to challenge that view. This parashah impresses upon us that not only is it possible for us to make a difference, but it is our imperative to do so. The portion opens with the words “Ki tisa … – When you take a census of the Children of Israel … v’natnu – every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul …. This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census, a half-shekel .
At first glance, this commandment to count the Jewish people appears puzzling. Surely the Almighty God knows our number, so what purpose is there in a census? Moreover, why should the people be counted through a “half-shekel“?
Herein is to be found a profound teaching, which, if absorbed properly, can be a life-transforming experience through which we can make that difference. Ki tisa – the words with which the Torah commands the census – does not literally mean “counting,” but rather “the elevation of one’s head,” impressing upon us that when we realize that we count, our heads are lifted up and we are elevated. The realization that we can impact on the destiny of the world, that our words and deeds have significance, charges us with responsibility and allows us to grow and become better people.
Our Sages offer many explanations as to how we may best achieve this elevation. When we make a spiritual accounting by carefully scrutinizing our lives, then we transcend ourselves and grow spiritually. By having to contribute half a shekel rather than a full shekel to the census, we are challenged to realize that we are all only halves and that our nation is strong only when its individual parts join in unity. It follows, then, that when we make a decision to pray with greater intensity and devote more time to Torah study, to be more scrupulous about the observance of Shabbat and kashruth, to make an effort to control our tempers and to desist from lashon hara (gossip and slander), to reach out with chesed (loving-kindness) and patience, then we are not only elevating our individual selves, but we are actually tipping the scales in favor of our people and the world.
The half-shekel that we are called upon to donate is also symbolic of a heart broken in half, which results from the awareness that sometimes we fail in our mission of fulfilling God’s commandments. That realization is in and of itself a measure of atonement for our souls. As King David proclaimed in his psalm: “God is close to the broken hearted.