I know a man who keeps KitKats handy. When he approaches someone else, he pulls out the two-stick chocolate, opens the wrapping, and offers the other person one of the sticks. The technique works wonders, as indeed it should. Tokens matter. First impressions matter. And showing consideration is always a great way to start a conversation.
We can take this further: a peace offering is never a bad way to try to turn a tricky situation into a positive result. We can indeed change the outcome of an encounter if we curry favor first. Imagine that a person who has wronged you were to take the initiative, offering a chocolate and an apology … wouldn’t that positively influence your reaction?
The first example of this is found in Genesis. Jacob is coming back into Canaan. Esau, with a small army, is going to meet him. Esau, as you may recall, has a righteous case against his brother for impersonation and stealing the blessing from their father. Both brothers know it.
But Jacob decides to preemptively defuse Esau’s anger:
[Jacob] reasoned: “If I propitiate [kapar] him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor [naso].”
And it works! Esau’s anger is stilled, and the brothers meet and then part on cordial terms. Jacob invented the KitKat Method: give an influencing present to achieve protection [kapar], and thus naso ends with a positive result.
Why am I stressing these two words: kapar and naso? Because it is critical in this verse:
When you take a census [literally: when you naso the head] of the Israelite men according to their pakad, each shall pay G-d a kapar for himself on being pakad, that no plague may come upon them by being pakad.
There seem to be a direct connection – that G-d teaches us that when we are going to be confronted by the error of our ways, we should do as Jacob did. And if we do so, then G-d will forgive us just as Esau forgave Jacob!
Other linguistic parallels make this point even more concrete: the word used above, pakad, is the same word used for the first time in the Torah when G-d “recognizes” Sarah and fulfills His promise to give her a son. The word pakad means to gain attention, to be judged. And we all know that the result of raising (naso) our heads and gaining G-d’s judgement (pakad) may well be negative.
And so, just as Jacob brings a mollifying gift to Esau in the runup to them meeting up, the Torah tells us that we bring a mollifying gift (the half-shekel that is used to construct G-d’s House, the Tabernacle) so that when we are judged, G-d will do as Esau did. We are literally commanded to change G-d’s mind.
P.S. The possible negative result is found if we do not seek to placate G-d. The word negef, translated as “plague” is used to refer to a host of negative outcomes, starting with the plague of frogs, and applying to all the plagues against a Pharaoh who neither recognized G-d, nor deferred to him. In the Torah, negef is G-d’s response to people who work against G-d’s interests. And once started, a negef requires a kapar. The token action or gift makes a difference!
P.P.S. After I wrote this piece, I realized that I asked a very similar question a few years ago – and found a different answer! In the spirit of “70 faces of the Torah” I think both have some value. Here is that one! https://creativejudaism.org/2021/03/01/paying-a-ransom/
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]