This week the parasha opens with a fascinating verse. Rather than tell you my interpretation of it, this time I will walk through how a person might approach a verse and uncover questions and themes for interpretation.
Parashat Ki Tissa begins with an instruction about counting heads and counting money:
First attempt at translation: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their being-taken-note-of each shall give the Lord a ransom for his soul on being-taken-note-of, that no plague may come upon them through their being-taken-note-of.
The first word for counting up a census is tissa. It means literally "lift up." -- you shall take a census -- means literally "lift up." The other word for counting, repeated three times in one verse, is the root p'kod. This word means variously: to remember, to take note of, to enroll, to charge with a mission.
Then there is the word kopher. It means ransom, and it is related to word kippur, as in Yom Kippur. It could mean to ransom, to wipe clean. There are, to boot, homonyms meaning "bear cub" and "deny the faith."
There is a suggestion of a plague, and in the following verses we learn that the money collected is to go to the service of God in the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary.
In a single line, the Torah seems bent on swirling us around, mixing together positive and dangerous implications of the census. How might one untangle them? Which drash would you develop about this verse?
- Counting people could be lifting them up -- or reducing them to the value of the money they contribute.
- Perhaps only those who contribute and are willing to be charged with a mission "count" in the community.
- Counting heads and money could be the lowest level of community, and stopping there risks a "plague" that rots the community, unless it continues to the end of the verse, where people are charged with a mission.
- When we accept money from people in the community, it's an invitation to take note of them individually. The verse says "each" (singular) "shall give" (plural) -- there is no plural, no totality, unless each person's contribution is noted.
- Sometimes being noticed by a leader or by a group is uplifiting. Sometimes it is challenging, sometimes it is dangerous.
- The plague could stand for the limits of counting. If we count and stop, if we say "this many" and forget to look for more, we limit not only who is in the community but what it can strive for.
Which message do you take? It depends on how you relate the key words to each other, and how you interpret the order they are in. One thing we know is that Jewish communities are like the Count on Sesame Street. We love to count! Especially the two things the Torah mentions, members and money. When we need a quick measure of the health of our community, we count.
Why we count, or what to do as we're counting or after we count....go back to the words and come up with your interpretation!