Rabbi Jonathan Ganger
by Published on April 27, 2020
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As often happens, the Torah’s weekly reading parallels a current event. Granted, we Jews have a creative knack for finding connections, in this case, there is no need to stretch. The parsha begins with a census. However, in Torah thought, a census is not a straightforward endeavor.  Counting brings with it an immense danger,” with a counting, there is an evil eye that accompanies it, and it is accompanied by a plague” (Rashi).  For this reason, right after the count, Jews are meant to give a half-shekel to atone for this audacious counting.  The question is why is counting fraught with danger? What is an ‘evil eye’ and how is atonement achieved via giving a half shekel? Secondly, how does this information, perhaps, apply to our current situation?

              Counting has several connotations. It puts the spotlight on one individual and, in a sense, isolates them from the community as it points out that this person is a single, important, and visible number. These are great things in many ways, but  brings with it three problems. First, it highlights the person as an individual with all of his foibles and flaws.  When in a group, a person can rely on his strength and count on others to make up for his weaknesses, which is why the Torah views groups as meritorious.  For example, a short basketball player will not be docked for being a poor rebounder because on his team he likely doesn’t have to.  But if we were to look at him as an individual basketball player, we’d notice that he is not a great rebounder.

  Second, it creates overexposure as a person who is singled out can’t hide within the group.   The problem with overexposure is that when we really see something, we may be tempted to say ‘I’ve seen the whole person’, which is of course impossible.  Whenever we see a person, it is always just the tip of the iceberg.  A person is complex with a myriad of hidden thoughts and experiences.  When judging just what we see, it can create a false and negative impression.  Mr. Rogers says it best, “what’s essential is invisible to the eye…Particularly when we don’t slow down and really look”.

  Finally, it creates an evil eye in that too much importance given to somebody generates jealousies, and begs the question does this person really deserve this much status? We end up judging a person harshly (incorrectly) based on what we see. This in turn creates a spiritual danger for that person as our judgements also create spiritual judgements which in turn can create a plague. To summarize: counting has the potential to create an individualistic society, a shallow society, and a jealous society focused on status all of which create a society ripe for a plague.

Why a plague? Because a plague accomplishes a remedy to these three issues. A plague reminds us that we are part of one big community. A sneeze in China can affect an American in New York- we are never truly individuals.  Next, we are forced to go into hiding and not overly expose our self and every aspect of our life (granted, with facebook there is no real thing as indoors, but there is less content to show).  It also forces us to slow down and really take people in properly so that we can begin to understand them.  Finally, viruses are equal opportunity invaders that can affect the prince or the pauper, the celebrity and the laborer.

              However, we avoid the forced fix with a positive fix- the half-shekel donation.  Through the donation, a person reunites with community via a community project and by giving half, they realize they are not complete without the rest of the community. Furthermore, both the rich and poor gave the same donation-everyone is equal and no one is more visible than anyone else.

So what we can we do with our current predicament without the potential for a half-shekel donation? We can take the ideas of a half- shekel and apply it our world. Let’s work on creating community. Let’s work on our depth and treat others as complex beings whom we can’t judge or understand based on first appearances. Let’s slow down and take people in properly.  Let’s not concern our self with our own status or anyone else’s- we are all in the same boat. If we do this, we can transform this virus from a plague to a blessing.