An uplifting Torah portion

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with a census. Moses is instructed to count the number of men available to be conscripted in the event of the need for self-defense against any enemy forces that might be encountered during their wandering in the wilderness. 

Instead of counting the people, he is told to collect a half-shekel from each one. This accomplishes two purposes: It counts the number of people and raises funds for the Mishkan, the sanctuary about which the previous two and the next two parshiyot are concerned.

The language used is “Ki Tissa Et Rosh Bnei Yisra’el Lifkudeihem — When you take a census of the Israelites according to their enrollment.” The literal meaning of this verse, however, is, “When you lift the head of the Israelites according to their accounting.” What does “lift up the head” mean? 

In the Joseph story, it is used two ways. One of those is to indicate that the chief butler was elevated from jail to his previous high status position as a trusted servant of the Pharaoh. The other way in which it is used is to inform the reader that the chief baker’s head was literally lifted from his shoulders, as he was executed for whatever it was that he did that displeased the pharaoh. Only the context allows the reader to discern which meaning is more appropriate.

As the verse in Parshat Ki Tissa was read, there is a commentary that reads this idiom as elevating each Israelite. It speaks to the unique qualities that each possessed as well as the contribution that each made to the people as a whole. Their strength as a people was in their ability to lift each other up, rather than to attempt to lift themselves up by putting others down. Each contributed the same half-shekel, no matter how much or how little each could have afforded. In so doing, each one counted and each was elevated.

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Here in the United States, during this election season that began last year and will culminate in November (thankfully!), most of the candidates would do well to learn this lesson from Ki Tissa. Rather than attempting to drag their opponents through the mud, they would do better to stress their positive qualities, to express a sense of mutual respect, even when disagreeing on the direction in which each would lead. 

The candidates would do better to inform the voters of the positive and unique personalities that each possesses — their individual character, their knowledge and experience — not in opposition to that of their opponents but their own alone. What qualifies each to lead is more important than saying what disqualifies the others to do so. 

Lifting one’s own head someone does not have to be character assassination of another. When one lifts the head of another, one also lifts one’s own head.