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Parshat Ki Tisah 5766 - Are we consumers in an economic system or contributors in a human society?

by in Ki Tisa .

The word "Tisah" implies elevation and upliftment. A prince is called a Nasi. But it also implies "to carry". Even the very idea of ‘lifting someone up’ in English also has two meanings: Toraise someone would mean to lift him up high as a sign of honor as we often do to a Chattan and Kallah at their wedding. To carrysomeone implies that they are disabled and unable to carry themselves. One can be a Nasi, a major contributor to society, or one can be a Masui, nothing but a burden to society and a consumer of its resources.

The word Yisah (same root as tisah) is used with some irony in both positive and negative senses when Yoseif[1] interprets the dreams of the butler and the baker. In the butler’s case " Pharo will raise his head" – honor him. In the case of the poor baker, "Pharo will raise his head from off him" – execute him. The butler is to become a nasi, a contributor, one able to bear Pharo’s cup, a prince of sorts. The baker will become a masui, a corpse unable to bear anything, rather needing to be carried.

So, the Parsha’s name (in the case of each parsha, an illuminating source of insight,) Ki Tisah, carries within it aspects of honor and aspects of humiliation. It is not by chance that the Torah selects this particular word as the term for the counting of people, for a population census.

The most basic technique in the practice of dehumanization is the reduction of a person’s identity to a number. The Correction Services do it. The Nazis took it to extremes. But we do it in our society all the time: Social Security numbers, Identity numbers, Passport Numbers; to name a few! We are used to it; we accept it. But what is it exactly that we are accepting? We are accepting the fact that we live in a system not a society. As a cog in the system’s wheel, we accept that the system will show us no dignity. And so each day we become more and more used to accepting the insidious erosion of our dignity as human beings.

In our system, censuses are conducted to plan how to cope with the needs of a growing or changing demography. It is about their needs rather than about their contributions. We see people as consumers not as producers. When we ARE measuring production (GDP) rather than consumption needs, we don’t count heads, we measure output. Mere talk of overpopulation shows that we see people as net consumers rather than net contributors. Because, if people were net contributors, how could we be overpopulated? Every person would be produce more than they consume! Companies would hardly ever downsize if they truly saw people as net contributors, they would simply help people adapt to new areas of contribution. Companies often say people are their most valuable assets, but they generally mean that people are their most costly expenses. They would gladly use any opportunity to replace people with technology.

Leaders do often have to know the numbers of the people for whom they are responsible. There are different ways of counting people though. You can count them in ways that make them feel like objects of consumption and need, or you can count them as potential contributors. They could be made to feel like people who are carried, or like people who carry. The Torah warns Moshe that an undignified method of counting people diminishes them and introduces space for the Ayin Ha’rah that could result in a plague[2] - an ultimate reduction in the people count. Counting people dehumanizes them. And so the Torah introduces the counting method of Machatzit Hashekel, half a shekel.

There are three interesting observations:

  1. Firstly, the Torah chooses to use a coin rather than a token of no value.
  2. The coin is not a complete unit but half a unit.
  3. The donation used to count is called Kofer, an atonement.

A coin is a token of value and it signifies a valuable contribution made by each person. In fact, even the donation of the half shekel in order to be counted is in itself a contribution. Moshe is to count peoples’ contributions, he is to make them feel like valuable contributors, not like cogs in a system. It is half a shekel to impress on people that however much they contribute to society and no matter how important their contribution is, it only becomes meaningful when it is integrated with the contributions of others – the other half. Each person is reminded that their contribution can never be more than half – there is always the need for the collaboration and cooperation of others.

The donation is called Kofer, Atonement, because one who consumes without contributing is a sinner, he is a taker from society without any adequate reciprocation. He exploits the work of others. (Contribution does not necessarily take the form of a measurable input into the economy. Some immensely valuable contributions are qualitative and of low cost to the individual who makes that contribution.) When we exploit our environment – take from it without giving back – we sin. When we exploit our communities, our governments, our institutions, our employees or our employees or even our families, we sin. The contributions we make are the "atonement", or payment[3], for the richness we take.

A Jew wants to count, not be counted! I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin[4] assert recently that the absurdly disproportionate number of Jewish American Nobel Prize winners is not a function of our superior mental ability or genetic properties. Rather it is a function of the jew being born to contribute. We are driven to make a difference, to have impact. We are designed to be a Mamlechet Kohanim[5]. It is our relentless quest to make a contribution that puts us in the higher range of international achievers.

Torah was never intended to be institutionalized[6]. Our society was never meant to become a system. Our people count, and we count their contribution. We never count them. By counting peoples’ contributions, their Kofer Nefesh, we elevate them, we raise them rather than carry them. And when we contribute more than we consume we proudly carry others less fortunate than us rather than allow others to carry us.


[1] Ohr Hachaim 30:12

[2] Rashi, 30:12 veloh yi’heyeh bahem….

[3] See Unkelos and T. Yonatan

[4] Rav, Young Israel Century City, Los Angeles

[6] See the letter of R. Chaim Ozer Godgenski concerning the institutionalization of the Rabbinate in Israel; Kocetz Igrot h]HaChazon Ish.

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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