“Ye are standing this day all of you before the L’rd your G’d.
– Deuteronomy 29:9, JPS
Moshe speaks to the generation of B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) that will soon cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, under the new leadership of Joshua. Moshe reassures the people that despite their transgressions in the wilderness, they are still “standing this day.” The Hebrew word used for stand in this verse is nitzavim, from the shoresh (root word) NZV, meaning to stand upright.
Moshe explains that they are gathered together, standing before H’Shem, “that thou shouldest enter (uvalaso) into the covenant of the L’RD thy G’d (Deuteronomy 29:11, JPS). The shoresh, AVR, meaning to enter, also means to cross over. The use of this word is apropos of B’nei Yisrael’s immanent crossing over the Jordan to Canaan. Figuratively speaking, they are crossing over as wanderers in the wilderness into the Covenant. The proclamation given by Moses in this passage is a renewal of the covenant.
The Zohar relates the phrase, “Ye are standing this day” to Rosh HaShannah. When we stand before H’Shem on Rosh HaShannah, the Day of Judgment, when we are judged for the year, the books are opened, and we hope to be judged favorably, so that we may cross over into a good year. Let us search and try our ways, and return to the L’RD (Lamentations 3:40, JPS), so that we may stand before Him, and be inscribed in the Book of Life.
“‘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.