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Shemot/Exodus 30:15 The rich shall not increase and the poor shall not diminish from a half of the shekel ... to atone for your souls.
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This instruction comes as part of the regulations for taking a census, or an enrollment, of the people. Starting a few verses earlier,HaShem tells Moshe, "When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the L-RD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled" (Shemot 30:12, NJPS). The word used for 'when', , doesn't have the same repetitive force as , 'whenever' (literally, in all time), but it seems clear from the bad consequences that it should apply to all occasions when a census is carried out, no matter by whose instructions. Richard Elliott Friedman asks, "Why should there be a plague when the Israelites are being counted? In biblical Israel a census is regarded as a negative thing. It gives a central leader control: for conscription, forced labour and taxation. When King David takes a census, the result is a plague (2 Samuel 24). So here a ransom must be taken for everyone counted in the census so there will not be a plague."
The purpose of this offering comes up for discussion among the commentators. Is this simply a regulation that applies when censii are being taken, or is there something larger in view? RabbiHirsch thinks that there is, based on a close reading and comparison between verse 12 and our text above. He points out that the Hebrew words (above) translated "your souls", , is plural in two respects: not only is the 'souls' part plural, but the 'your' pronoun suffix at the end is also plural. In verse 12, the words translated "for himself", , is singular both those same respects: one person, one soul. This can only mean, he says, that "in this verse [that is, our text above, verse 15] the object of a fixed gift of half a shekel is given as a contribution towards the atonement of the community and not as is verse 12, as the individual ransom of the giver." This in turn means, he continues, that verse 15 does not "refer to the atonement gift given at the time of the census, but to the permanent regular duty for each person to contribute a half-shekel yearly for the purpose of defraying the expenses of providing the public offerings." This is the tax we see being collected in Matthew's gospel - "When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, 'Does your teacher not pay the tax?'" (Matthew 17:24, ESV) - and that is commemorated each year in the Jewish calendar on the shabbat known as Shabbat Shekalim.
The equality in this matter between rich and poor - for, as Umberto Cassuto notes, "even in the generation of the wilderness there could be found differences of wealth"1 - also attracts the attention of the commentators.Ibn Ezra says this is so "because this offering is given as expiation for your souls," of which we each have one, no more and no less! The Sforno suggests that this is a worked example of the verse, "He is not partial to princes; the noble are not preferred to the wretched; for all of them are the work of His hands" (Job 34:19, NJPS). Nahum Sarna provides a more polished account, writing that, "the Tabernacle belongs equally to every Israelite, irrespective of one's social status or wealth. As all human beings are equal before G-d, there is to be one standard contribution from all, to be neither exceeded nor reduced." The Ramban goes as far as to say the equality must be enforced: "this is a negative commandment; so although we might understand the first half of the phrase to mean that the rich man 'need not' pay more, in fact he must actually be prohibited from doing so."
Hirsch claims, despite the apparently clear wording of the text and even his own argument above, that strict monetary equality is not what is in view here. Perhaps thinking of gathering the manna in the wilderness - "The Israelites did so, some gathering much, some little. But when they measured it by the omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no deficiency: they had gathered as much as they needed to eat" (Shemot 16:17-18, NJPS) - Hirsch proposes that "in this equality, the symbolic nature of the fixed gift of half a shekel is expressed. As long as the rich man and the poor man give, each all that he can, does the whole of what he can do, then, as far as G-d and His Sanctuary are concerned, the pounds of the rich weigh no more than the pennies and shillings of the poor, and the pennies and shillings of the poor are quite equal to the pounds of the rich. The rich man can do no more, and the poor man shall do no less, than the half of a whole shekel. G-d and the Sanctuary weigh ... what is given and what is done in relation to the fortune and abilities of the givers."
Notwithstanding Hirsch's last argument, our text teaches that all lives have value and that, before G-d, every life has exactly the same value. This is not simply a half shekel - be that a sanctuary shekel of silver or a modern New Israeli Shekel - which is simply a token representing the life of a human being. How can we estimate that value? In the priestly teaching about atonement, HaShem equates life with life: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life" (Vayikra 17:11, ESV). When sin has been committed, atonement can only be made by offering the life of a sacrificial animal on the altar; it is the blood of that animal that makes the atonement. But how much is life worth? Sheep and goats may be sold for a relatively small amount of money - a breeding ewe might typically fetch around £45, while a hogget2 averages just over £2/kg of body weight - but what about human being? People being sold into slavery in biblical times were valued by the priest and could be redeemed for that price at any time. But that's not the same as the value of a life. If a previous drash, we considered the verse, "You may not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime; he must be put to death" (B'Midbar 35:31, NJPS), concluding that the value of a condemned man was zero. He may not be redeemed, either by the payment of a financial penalty or substitution of animal sacrifices.
Do you remember as a child, trying to confuse a calculator by making it divide by zero? The display would fill up with 'E' symbols or perhaps flash slowly and none of the ordinary keys would work until you pressed the Clear All key or maybe turned the calculator off and on again. That's because mathematics involving the number zero is sometimes undefined. Dividing anything by zero gives the answer infinity and conversely, although multiplying zero by any (ordinary) number yields the answer zero, one might think that multiplying zero by infinity gives you the number which which you started.3 Applying that principle to the value of life and someone who is under sentence of death, we might say that they cannot be redeemed because multiplying their life value by any possible redemption figure still comes out to zero. It is only when combined with an infinite value that their life value is restored to its value before the death sentence was given.
You'll see, of course, where this is going. Rav Sha'ul wrote that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G-d" (Romans 3:23), echoing Solomon's view that "there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20, ESV). In that we are all equal: every man, woman and child on this planet, now, in the past or in time to come, is caught in sin; we have all been there and done it - we've all got the t-shirt. Sha'ul tells us the truth that we need and don't want to hear: "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We are all condemned; we have no value and cannot be redeemed by anything that we have, can do or say, or that anyone else can do or say. Except that G-d, who still values us because we are each uniquely made in His image and He doesn't wish that "that any should perish" (2 Peter 3:9, ESV), gave of Himself - His unique and only Son - the sacrifice of infinite value that we might be restored. Only, strangely, because infinity is undefined, the value we end up with - zero times infinity - is actually greater than where we started because His sacrifice is greater than all our sin and the value of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts because He redeems and restores all of us who call on Him, as G-d conforms us to the image of Yeshua!
So from our text we first learned than all lives have value and that every life is worth exactly the same; then that sin destroys our value and makes us as good as dead; then that G-d still values each of us and has saved - or will save - us in exactly the same way: in His Son, Yeshua. He is the pearl of great price, the ransom beyond our dreams, the One who brings us home on His shoulders. Do you know Him?
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
2. - A sheep between one and two years old, sold ready to slaughter for meat production.
3. - Sadly, this isn't quite true, as any mathematician will tell you. The answer is still undefined, but it is a convenient way to illustrate the argument.
Further Study: Psalm 143:1-2; Romans 5:12; 1 Peter 1:18-19
Application: So let's cut to the chase and tell it how it is. Are you valued and love by G-d, redeemed and rescued in His Son, or are you dead meat, merely waiting for the execution? G-d wants to reach out to you today and make you an offer you simply can't refuse. Isn't it time you started listening?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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