HALF A SHEKEL Ki tissa by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HALF A SHEKEL – Ki tissa – Exodus 31

          Call it a census.  Counting heads.  Registering for the draft.  Whatever name we use, we are talking about a government determining how many people they are governing.  Sometimes that can be an expensive process.  Not long ago, we saw various unofficial census takers getting paid off to pad statistics in one-party districts.  That is not how Moses did it.

          He used Divine authority to order every male Israelite over the age of 20 to come forward and bring half a shekel.  The priest on duty would duly take the name and the coin, and that man was registered.  The order stated specifically: “the rich shall not bring more, and the poor shall not bring less than half a shekel.”  Not a fund-raiser, this operation, but a census of all Israelites of military age.

          Granted, record keeping in Moses’ time was limited, and a good deal cheaper than now.  Half a dollar per head would hardly pay the cost of a modern census, or of a national draft board if we had one. We can assume that it was enough for the generation of Israelites trekking through the Sinai desert.  

          But the most significant feature of this operation is not its economic aspect but the human one.  If Abie Rockefeller and Yossel Smith bring what they can afford, Abie could probably buy himself a general’s commission while Yossel can expect to be a buck private.  But when they must bring just half a shekel each, they are equals.  Let Moses or Joshua or whoever will be their commander decide on their rank.  Let them earn that commander’s respect, and the rank should come with it.  On the other side of the coin, undoubtedly Moses knew that if the men brought what they could afford, some would certainly buy their way out of the service, as happened in many places throughout later history. 

Remember, Moses did not command a volunteer army.  Every Israelite man was expected to defend his people.  Universal military service.  That is not the case in our time and place.  A volunteer army inevitably attracts a large majority of those who have no other opportunity.  That does not mean they won’t be good fighters.  It does mean than defending the nation becomes the work of the poor.  And it should not be that.   Universal military service needs to be for all citizens.

 Just bring half a shekel.


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