June 20, 2024
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June 20, 2024
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It is amazing how the Torah sometimes subtly relays multiple messages—often even contradictory messages—at once in order to convey a nuanced approach to crucially important issues.

In this week’s parsha Hashem commands Moshe to take a census of the nation through a half-shekel donation from each individual. The meforshim raise many questions regarding the details of this directive and derive many beautiful lessons from aspects of the counting.

Rashi in Bamidbar 1:1 explains that Hashem commands the census in order to show His love for every member of the Jewish people. The image is invoked of a jeweler who counts his jewels often because of each jewel’s individual worth. So too, God periodically counts His people to show that He values every member of Am Yisrael. On a fundamental level, therefore, the census was designed to instill within each person an inherent sense of self-worth; to remind them that in God’s eyes every person “counts.” Some commentaries add that the words used by God in commanding the census is Ki Tisa, literally meaning “when you will raise.” The act of counting each member of klal Yisrael was meant to raise each individual up by highlighting his importance within the Jewish nation.

At the same time, the census also conveyed a different, contrasting message. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch asks why Hashem specifically commanded the individual collection of a half shekel for the census rather than a whole shekel. He suggests that Hashem commands the collection of a half-shekel in order to subtly convey the message that, alone, no individual is fully complete; only in partnering with others can a person truly become whole.

We therefore have two lessons regarding the census that converge to provide a thoughtful and nuanced approach to our place within the Jewish nation and society as a whole. The very concept of a national census reminds every individual of their own importance and worth. And yet, embedded within that crucial message is the added reminder that, as important as each person is, we alone are limited in what we can accomplish. Only when we move beyond ourselves and partner with others can we reach our potential.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa is known to have said that everyone must have two pockets, each with a note. On one note should say “bishvili nivra ha-olam, The world was created for me” (Gemara Sanhedrin 37b), and the other note should say “V’anochi afar v’efer, I am but dust and ashes” (Bereishit 18:27). Each person is charged to recognize his importance and infinite value, and at the same time balance that feeling of self-worth with a healthy dose of humility and an understanding of our limitations as individuals.

Many studies have noted a sharp rise in anxiety, depression and low self-esteem in children and teens over the past 20 years. Prominently identified among possible sources of this unfortunate phenomenon is the rise in use of smartphones/devices and social media. Children today spend much more time in front of devices and much less time interacting in person with others. This tendency inevitably leads to a greater sense of unconscious, existential loneliness. In addition, the realities of social media—the bullying, social pressure and social comparison inherent therein—cause many children to develop issues concerning their self-esteem.

Given this challenging reality, it is imperative that we spend much time, thought and energy cultivating within our children a deep sense of their inherent self-worth. From an early age we must constantly impress upon them how much we, and God, treasure their unique place within the Jewish people and their potential contributions to the world. Much effort should be placed upon helping our children internalize that their inherent value comes from within—and is not dependent upon outside approval or recognition. While the realities of social stressors and peer pressures are inevitable, the more successful we are in laying a foundation of self-esteem within our children early on, the better equipped they will be to withstand the challenges to come.

At the same time, while our main focus should be to raise our kids with a large dose of self-confidence, we must also strive to balance that self-confidence with a healthy measure of humility. As our children grow up in the “selfie” and “I” generation, we are tasked with helping them appreciate the limitations of the individual and how much more they can become when they partner with others.

There is no simple way to instill both these messages simultaneously. But as a first step we must communicate that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Our children can be taught to recognize their own importance and, at the same time, realize they are only truly complete when they connect with those outside themselves within the larger context of their community and people.

Immediately after receiving the Torah and becoming a nation, God commands the leaders to count the nation—the details of which relay a subtle and nuanced message that is very relevant for us as parents. God counts His people often to show the inherent importance of each member of the Jewish nation. At the same time, by using a half-shekel as the method of counting, He impresses upon the people the limitation of the individual and that we are complete only when we partner with those around us.

Shabbat shalom!


Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at [email protected].

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