When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. (Ex. 30:12)
The questions spring out of the text: Why on earth is some kind of ransom needed because a census is being taken? What possible connection could there be between numbered in a census and being stricken with a plague?! The verse seems quite odd – though there is a rational and lovely explanation if we just read more carefully.
Let’s start by parsing the words a bit more carefully. For starters the Hebrew for the word “ransom” is actually the very same word, “kopher,” that is used in the Torah to describe the protective layer or buffer between Noah’s Ark and the waters of the flood just on the other side – as well as the buffer we grow between ourselves and G-d on the eponymous Yom Kippur. In all cases, this buffer protects life against strong forces which otherwise would kill us merely because of proximity.
So, the Torah is describing some kind of protection racket! We have to protect our souls because we have been involved in census?! Have we really gone any distance toward answering the question of why a ransom must be paid?
Actually, we have. And here is why: In Judaism, numbers of people do not matter. Each person has a soul on loan from G-d, so for a finite time only, we are capable of touching the infinite. Each and every one of us. And, for every person, there is a unique opportunity. No two people are supposed to lead the same lives. So being “one of two” is a way of diminishing our potential to touch the divine. It is a denial of what makes each person special: not our quantity, but our quality.
The Torah makes it clear that human life by itself has no ultimate value. What matters is not the fact that we are biologically alive; what matters are the choices we make. Or as Gandalf put it: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So being involved in a census is dehumanizing, relegating a human soul to a mere equivalence. Considering any two people to be equivalent to each other is a threat to the unique quality of each person. Such an equivalence threatens our identities, our potential contributions to the world.
People are not numbers. We are all individual souls. So when we cease being individuals and we merely become numbers, then we endanger the purpose of our existence. Being part of a census denies our humanity. And all of that means that we have less of a reason to live: hence the plague. The plague is the means of culling out those who no longer have a purpose in life, who have been relegated to being nothing more than “one of many.”
So why does paying protection money save us from being deemed irrelevant and thus suitable for an early death? The answer is found in the purpose of those funds: they are used for the building of the tabernacle, G-d’s own home within the people. This was a unique and holy project, one that called for community-wide involvement and contribution. Which means there is another lesson as well: we are allowed to put aside our unique qualities when doing so serves a much higher purpose, a holy and universal goal such as building G-d’s house.
This is also the lesson behind the uniforms worn by the priests: when serving they were to subsume their personalities and quirks, hide anything that made them stand out from other priests, and then serve as functionaries. Priests were not free to improvise or add stylistic flair: when serving in the tabernacle, they had to do everything by the book.
But the rest of the time, individuality among priests was to be encouraged just as much as everyone else’s. Outside of very limited and special conditions, each person should offer a unique and valuable contribution. That is an integral part of the inherent value of each human soul.
We are not numbers. We are people.
[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]