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At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, God commands Moses to take a census of the Jewish nation. Both the process for taking the census, as well as the language that is used, is unusual. There is a prohibition to count Jews directly. God commands Moses to gather a half shekel from each man above the age of twenty years old (basically, those eligible for army service). The rich can’t give more and the poor can’t give less. Based on the funds that were collected they would indirectly know the number of people who could serve.

At the heart of the verse which gives the command is the Hebrew verb “phkod,” which can be translated as “to count” or “to enroll.” A literal translation of the verse would look as follows:
“And God spoke to Moses, saying: When you raise the head of the children of Israel according to their count (li’phkudeihem), and they shall give each man an atonement for their soul to God when they are counted (bi’phkod), and there shall not be a plague upon them when they are counted (bi’phkod).” – Exodus 30:11-12
The Berdichever explains that the word “li’phkudeihem” (“to their count”), is a language which demonstrates that something is lacking. With that understanding, he explains how we should view our own service of God, namely that we should always view ourselves as if we hadn’t even started serving God. Paradoxically, when one keeps in mind that he hasn’t started, then he has reached someplace in his divine service. Conversely, if one were to think that they’ve reached a certain level in serving God, then in fact, they haven’t reached anything yet.
All of this is hinted at in the verse. When it refers to “raise the head,” it means that the way to become elevated is to feel a sense of lack, to understand that we really haven’t started to serve God properly. When someone gives “an atonement for their soul,” they start to connect to and serve God from a sense of humility, with a constant sense of purpose and dedication, with daily renewing vigor.
May we have the humility to realize where we’re at and the strength to always strive further.
Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay. He is the author of over a dozen books on Torah themes, including a Biblical Fiction series. He is the publisher of a website dedicated to the exploration of classic Jewish texts, as well as TweetYomi, which publishes daily Torah tweets. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.