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The Value of a Soul

In Parashat Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35) HaShem tells Moses to conduct a census, yet it’s not an actual head count. Instead, the number of people is calculated using the silver half-shekel given by each one who passes in front of Moses. The half-shekel was an atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf. Silver, rather than gold is always used as a way to purchase goods, even slaves. Could it be that silver content of the half-shekel was seen as symbolic of Israel's acceptance as servants of HaShem? Possibly, the use of gold in the idol required an alternative precious metal for use in the expiation of their deeds.


Though this parsha opens with the command to take a census, the actual count occurs after the Golden Calf. Two Torah concepts are drawn from the placement of the command to take a census. One is a principle called Refuah Kodem LaMakah meaning that HaShem provides the cure before the affliction. Another idea offered by placement of the census before the Golden Calf is the principle that the Torah is not written in chronological order.


The Talmud and other sources cite interesting parallels between the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer. In Avodah Zarah, 44a we read:


"And he took the calf that they had made, and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” (Exodus 32:20). Moses ground up the calf intending only to inspect them like sota women, i.e., like a woman suspected by her husband of having been unfaithful. Such a woman is compelled to drink water containing the ground-up ink from a scroll of Torah passages relating to a sota woman, which causes her to die if she was unfaithful, and exonerates her and bestows blessings upon her if she was faithful. Similarly, Moses ground up the calf in order to compel the people to drink, to cause the guilty parties to die."


At first glance, it seems that the calf was fashioned for the purpose of worship but that was not the original intent. The major error, according to OrChaim was, “…to construct some symbol of a celestial force which would remind them of G-d in Heaven.” There is nothing wrong with symbolism until you worship the symbol. This same error led the pre-Flood generation into a riot of idolatry. At Sinai, the people's motive sprang from their fear that Moses was dead. The fact that they were turning to some thing to replace Moses reveals they were dangerously close to viewing Moses as a god.


A deeper teaching connects the golden calf to the red heifer and how the intellect can pollute worship of the Creator. Following HaShem’s commands—not adding to His direction (Torah) is pure worship. The golden calf represents a very human desire to worship the tangible, to worship in a way that “makes sense” while the red heifer chok requires a level of humility to simply follow the invisible Creator’s clear instructions even if they defy reason or function.


As previously mentioned, the census was meant as an atonement for the Golden Calf and one might question how this is different from a similar event wherein a census was taken but disaster followed as recorded in 2nd Samuel 24 and 1st Chronicles 21. King David ordered a count out of pride and a desire to boast about the size of his kingdom. This act demonstrated a lack of trust in God's protection and led to a plague. Therefore, the lesson we learn from these two instances is that counting individuals is not inherently wrong, but the intention and motivation behind the counting are vital.


After the Sin of the Golden Calf, Israel repented for their lapse but needed assurance that their relationship with the Creator was intact. The census itself provided that assurance and a lesson: Regardless of wealth or social status, each one was required to give the same amount—a half-shekel. This teaches all of us that in the eyes of God, every individual is equally valuable, regardless of material possessions or position in society. In the eyes of G-d, we all count.

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