This week’s parsha opens with the commandment of counting the Jewish people following the sin of the Eigel (Rashi). They were not to be individually counted, but rather each person donated a half-shekel coin to the Mishkon and the coins were counted.
The posuk states that by conducting the census in this way, the act of counting would not bring on a plague, and each person’s donated coin would help forgive him for his sins.
Many commentators discuss what it is about the census of Jews that causes a plague. Why does each person give a half-shekel and how does that bring about forgiveness
A simple explanation is that when all Jews are counted equally, it demonstrates that one Jew is as important as the next, and no one should ever feel that they have sunk too far for redemption. A rough upbringing, a tough divorce, or so many of the difficulties we deal with in life can drive a distraught person from Yiddishkeit. The census shows that although they hit a rough patch and veered off, they are still Jews who are loved by Hashem, and their return is eagerly awaited.
Rav Tzadok of Lublin writes (Tzidkas Hatzadik 154) that just as a person is obligated to believe in Hashem, a person is obligated to believe in himself. No one should ever give up on themselves and feel that all hope is lost and they are too far gone. In whatever position a person finds themselves they posses the abilities to clamber back up and excel once again. Everyone counts.
The Alshich quotes Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi and the classic sefer Manos Levi on Megillas Esther, who says that each person contributes a half-shekel to demonstrate that every individual on their own is not whole. We only become complete and worthy of being counted as a member of Klal Yisroel when we live b’achdus with our brethren. If we are aloof, apathetic and alone, we don’t count, so to speak.
Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover explains that the counting was not to determine how many separate people there were and to add the number, but rather to bring the people together and count them all as one unit.
Additionally, the posuk states, “He’oshir lo yarbeh, vehadal lo yamit,” the rich man should not give more than a half-shekel and the poor man should not give less. The census is conducted to remind the Jewish people to rectify the sin that causes the Shechinah to be removed from among them, namely machlokes and peirud.
At the root of every machlokes is ga’avah, when one person feels that he is better than the other. For example, the rich man looks down at the poor one and says that his success is proof that he is more righteous and a better person. The poor man says that he is the bigger tzaddik and it is because of his righteousness that Hashem punishes him severely for his few minor sins. Each one feels himself superior to the other. Such feelings lead to squabbles among Jews and the departure of the Shechinah.
Therefore, the Torah calls for everyone to contribute the same small amount to signify that nobody knows their value in the eyes of Hashem and they view each other as equals. This leads to forgiveness of sins through the census, for the feelings of equality remove sinas chinom and machlokes and lead to achdus. When there is achdus among the Jewish people, the Shechinah returns.
Rav Chover adds that when there is achdus among Jews, they are able to help each other improve. When people despise each other, they cannot offer reproach or help. When two people are squabbling and one of them sees the other doing something wrong, he smiles, fantasizing about how he can spread virally what he saw and cause the person much pain and anguish. Even were he to reprimand the person who did wrong, the person wouldn’t accept the tochacha and suggestions for improvement, because he would feel that the other person is mocking him and seeking his downfall.
If we cannot be mochiach each other, then people won’t improve, and we will stray further and continue to act foolishly.
Mordechai HaYehudi was a champion of achdus and searched for ways to bring the Jewish people together to counter Haman. As a grandson of Amaleik, his ability to destroy the Jews would only be effective if the Jews remained divided. He enacted decrees and sought to scare and divide them further, but because Mordechai rose up to bring the Jews together, Haman failed.
The posuk at the end of Megillas Esther recounts that upon the conclusion of the Jewish victory over Haman, many people converted to Judaism: “Verabim mei’amei ha’aretz misyahadim, ki nofal pachad haYehudim aleihem.” They converted, the posuk tells us, because they feared the Jews.
The sefer Manos Levi remarks that despite the severity of Haman’s evil decree, there is no record that any Jews converted to spare themselves. Perhaps we can answer that this was because Mordechai brought the Jews together. He was thus able to be mochiach them and strengthen their faith in an ultimate triumph. Through the achdus he engendered, they were able to accept his mussar and repented for what they had done wrong. With their spiritual rise and restored faith, they fasted and prayed and Hashem heard their tefillos.
We are reminded of the crucial need for achdus as we lain the Megillah and engage in the mitzvos hayom, all of which seem intended to remind us to increase our brotherhood and love for each other. Every yom tov, the influences of the time of the original miracle for which the yom tov was proclaimed are present once again. On Purim, our ability to set aside differences to be able to merit geulah is real. Let us take advantage of the opportunity.
A story is told about Rav Shmuel Munkez, who sought to travel to visit his rebbe, Rav Shnuer Zalman of Liadi. He was poor and unable to afford the trip, so he made his way to the local market and searched for a merchant who would be traveling to Liadi and willing to let him hop along. He found a whiskey merchant who was headed to Liadi and agreed to give him a ride, with a hitch. He told the chossid that he wouldn’t be able to sit in the heated front carriage because of lack of space. He would gladly take him, but he would have to ride with the whiskey barrels in the unheated baggage section. Happy to have found a ride to his rebbe, Rabbi Munkez agreed.
The longer they traveled, the colder he became. It was a stiff Russian winter night, and after a few hours, the passenger felt as if he was going to freeze to death. He got out from between the barrels and went to the merchant in the warm carriage and shared his predicament. The generous merchant shared his cup with him and told the freezing man that he could open the spigot of one of the barrels and drink some of the whiskey. That would surely warm him. The chossid drank enough to warm himself and felt as if his life had returned to him.
When they arrived in Liadi, the chossid headed straight to the Alter Rebbe. They shook hands, he said shalom aleichem, and the rebbe answered aleichem shalom. And with that, the man told the rebbe that he was heading back home.
The rebbe understood that it was with difficulty that the man had traveled so far, and wondered why upon arriving all he wanted to do was turn around and go home.
The chossid responded that he had come to hear messages of Torah that would enable him to conduct himself properly. He told the rebbe that as he traveled to see him, he learned a lesson applicable to him and worth the trip. He told of how he suffered from bitter cold as he quivered among the whiskey barrels. It was only after he opened one of the barrels and drank from it that its liquid went through his body and totally warmed him.
He said that from this he learned that it is not sufficient to be among great men – tzaddikim and kedoshim – as you can still freeze to death. To be warmed by them, a person has to work to get the light of tzidkus and Torah into himself.
“I am returning home to work on that,” the chossid said, “and I shall return when I feel that I have accomplished in that regard.”
Purim is here, with its great lessons and hashpa’os. It is not enough to sit among the whiskey bottles. It is not enough to drink from the bottles. We must work on ourselves to ensure that the influences of the mitzvos of the day work their way through our innards and warm our souls on this special day, ensuring that the warmth lingers within us as we go forward.