weekly Torah reading: parashas Vayakhel 5782
“‘When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the L-RD.’” – Exodus 30:12, JPS 1917 Tanach
The silver from the census – a half shekel from every man – was used in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The exact amount needed was the exact amount collected from B’nei Yisrael when the census had previously been taken. Ohr HaChaim comments that this was a miracle.
The census itself is referred to as an atonement for the souls of B’nei Yisrael. Commentary explains that the half shekels that were taken from each individual served as an atonement for their souls, specifically for the sin of the golden calf. Sforno notes that the nature of a census itself requires an atonement for the souls of the individuals counted.
This is reflected in the following translation, “that no plague may come upon them for being enrolled” (Exodus 30:12, JPS 2006 Tanach). He explains that the head count of people is an oblique reminder of man’s guilt regarding sin (Sforno on 30:12, sefaria.org). In Sforno’s estimation, humans change from day to day, in regard to their moral status. Therefore, they are not the same when counted each time; thus, they are also scrutinized when counted.
It is as if they are scrutinized by the Almighty Himself, at the time of the census, and may fall short of His standard, namely, the commandments, at the time of counting. Therefore, from this perspective, the half shekel served as an atonement for their moral deficiencies at the time of being scrutinized. Inasmuch that we are subject to our yetzer hara (evil inclination) every day, we should scrutinize ourselves, seeking forgiveness even on a daily basis. And, finally, may it be H’Shem’s will that when we are scrutinized on Yom HaDin, we will be judged favorably. May His attribute of mercy override His attribute of judgment.