The reasons for conducting a census are many. It can better help our population with ways for the public to be served more efficiently. Unfortunately, it is also a very expensive endeavor. The cost for the American census of 2000 was more than $15 per person.
Is it worth it?
I believe that no nation, organization or congregation, for that matter, can serve its members without learning who they are and what their needs are on a continuous basis.
The Torah seemed to offer a solution for this economical challenge. “Each shall pay God a ransom (kofer) for himself on being enrolled so that no plague may come upon them.”
These “taxes” may be helpful for the authorities but with them comes a threat of a horrific punishment – a plague!
Rashi says that the ransom (half a shekel) is paid by the individual in order to protect him from the “evil eye.” Other contemporary interpreters suggested that life is a gift and we owe God something just for being alive, or that the half shekel serves as a reminder that the women and children, who were not counted, represented the other half of the community.
The Hebrew word kofer also means “cover.”
In that sense this money might also simply come to cover the human cost of running this census. Although it does come with a threat of being inflicted by a disease ... the fear of counting people is rooted in our tradition. A token of that is the minhag, to count a minyan by reciting different verses that hold 10 words instead of counting the people by numbers. Together with that, we all know that as Jews we are obsessed with numbers.
We keep counting ourselves and evaluating our numerical proportion in the general population, since we are concerned about Jewish survival. As Jews, we were frequently outnumbered but were able to make a difference by our moral strength and Jewish teachings. Whether we adopt the Jewish pluralistic view and claim that the reason for our survival hides in our ability to adapt to changes — or the Orthodox view that the secret to our survival lies in our ability to stick to our ideals and avoid changes, we still ignore those numbers. Perhaps the numbers are not as important to our survival as our inner strength.
We just celebrated Purim and learned again that our redemption was a factor of good leadership, political power and a righteous cause. Pesach teaches us to pursue our hope. After nine disappointments that accrued when Pharaoh kept changing his mind, it really happened — we were set free. The balance between our moral and physical strength is crucial. We need to maintain our physical liberty in order for us to protect ourselves and support each other. But our liberty will not be a lasting one unless we understand and recognize the noble causes and ideals we are fighting for. May we grow from strength to strength and continue our work of tikun olam (mending our world).
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)