Parshat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
During my freshman year of college, I was one of the lucky ones. There it was in my mailbox waiting for me to be filled out, waiting for me to answer its many questions. There were two versions. The first was quite simple, only a few trivial points of information to provide. The second, well, was much more complex. It asked questions of all sorts — about race, ethnicity, gender, consumer habits and the like. I received the second version. Yes, I was lucky enough to be given the full U.S. Census survey to complete. It took me nearly two hours to finish. But I did it. I wanted to make sure that I was counted.
This Shabbat, we encounter a census of a different sort. It is a special Shabbat, annually occurring the weekend before the start of the Hebrew month of Adar, which this year begins next Tuesday evening. It is called Shabbat Shekalim because of the half-shekel coin involved in the census-taking. As we read in this week’s additional Torah portion: “God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment … everyone who is entered in the records shall pay a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight.’”
Why the half-shekel? The rabbis noted the wisdom of using it as a token for counting. Each member of the Israelites brought an identical payment meant to show that each person has value, whether poor or rich — all have the same value before God. We are all equal before God; we all count when we are counted.
It is important to be counted. But what if being counted is not what really makes us count?
What do I mean by that? In the biblical census the people are all valued, but their differences are noted. Moses is instructed to make sure he counts each member of the Israelite community as members of a particular tribe, of a certain age, from a certain father’s house. In other words, in the wilderness the people were counted because of their ancestry, their ability to serve in the army and their standing within the tribe to which they belonged. Certainly, they were valued before God. But they were counted for what they were.
In the modern census, we too are counted for what we are — members of a particular race, a certain ethnicity or a defined religious group. We are counted by age, level of education, marital status and economic bracket. We too are valued before God. But we are counted by our demographic information; for what we are.
But is that what really makes us count?
What we are is not what makes us count; how we are is what really matters. Do we treat others well? Do we follow the commandments to the best of our ability? Do we live according to our highest ideals? Are we open to new ideas? Do we bring blessing to the lives of those around us? Can we be described as a mensch? The answers to these questions are the things that define us … and make us count.
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.