Not counting people is based upon the beginning of this week’s parsha. G-d commands Moshe that when he takes a census of the Jewish people, he should collect a ½ shekel coin from each male aged twenty and older. By counting the number of coins, Moshe knew the number of people from the age of twenty.
This collection went towards the purchase of animals for the daily sacrifices in the Tabernacle as well as other public sacrifices. The first day of Nissan is the new year regarding the counting of months and the fiscal year in the Tabernacle-Bais Hamikdash. Therefore, the practice became to have the annual collection for the public sacrifices during the month of Adar – the month that precedes Nissan. After the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, the annual collection was replaced by the reading of Parshas Shekalim on or before Rosh Chodesh Adar.
The Torah gives the purpose of using the ½ shekel. It was for a census. What was the purpose of the census? It was not for military purposes as the Torah does not tell us of any wars from the battle against Amalek shortly after the Exodus until the fortieth year in the desert when they fought against Sichon, Og, Midian and Moav.
Rashi explains that G-d frequently counted the Jewish people to show His love for us. He counted the Jewish people shortly after the Exodus. He counted the survivors of the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf and He counted the Jewish people after the construction of the Tabernacle when His presence dwelled among the Jewish people.
To be counted, each person was required to provide proof of his lineage. Rashi explains in the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar that each person presented documents and witnesses to be listed with his particular tribe. The Talmud states that G-d placed his “Shechina – Holy Presence” here on earth due to the pure origins of the Jewish families. The nations of the world also wanted to share the Torah. However, they could not produce proof of pure genealogy. (We know from the Book of Breishis that the family of Eisav was composed of illegitimate children – children from adulterous relationships and relationships with forbidden relatives.)
Thus, the census – based upon genealogy – became a source of pride for the Jewish people. Therefore, the Torah writes “Ki-Sisa” – literally, when you lift the Jewish people. The census lifted their spirits. In a world where the Jewish people suffered continually, this idea of moral origins and moral behavior was a comfort for them and put them above the rest of the world.
So, Yichus is important, elevates the spirit and brings the “Shechina” among the Jewish people. However, we must keep the “Shechina” in our presence and that is accomplished by merit. Yichus is not personal merit. Yichus does not make a person great. A person can be descended from the Vilna Gaon, the Ba’al Shem Tov or the greatest Torah personality and yet have no connection to the Jewish people. The Book of Judges records for us a story of an idolatrous priest. This idolatrous priest had a grandfather who was great beyond description – Moshe Rabbeinu – the greatest person who ever lived.
My grandfather used to say that it is nice and even important to have yichus. However, every person must make their own yichus. The Rabbis teach us that Torah is not an inheritance. Just because my father is a great Torah scholar does not translate that I will be a Torah scholar. It requires constant work and effort. Just as one cannot become proficient in law, medicine, accounting or any of the other fields without hours and hours of sweat and toil, the same holds true – even more so – for the study of Torah. Torah study and performance of Mitzvos are pre-requisites to attain that level. As Rabbi Elie Munk – Rabbi Fasman’s mechutan and the rabbi of pre-World War II Paris – writes, “The presence of the Shechina among men can be justified only through meritorious acts on man’s own part, and for that purpose the Torah designated the mitzva of the half-shekel to contribute materially to the obligations of the community.”
While there is an idea of yichus inherent in the donation of the ½ shekel, there is a more important idea that comes along with it. There is the idea of being a part of the community through action. When a person gave the ½ shekel to the Tabernacle/Bais Hamikdash, he was contributing to the welfare of the Jewish people. He was actively bringing the presence of G-d into this world.
The performance of Mitzvos is our insurance that G-d’s presence will rest among us. Every mitzva contributes towards the Jewish community and the person then is a part of the community. That is “Ki-Sisa” – when you will be lifted – the mitzvos allow us to hold our heads high.