This week’s Torah reading opens with a census of the Israelite nation. The purpose of this census was two-fold: to raise funds for the building of the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle, and to provide an accurate count of both the ancient Israelite army and the nation as a whole. Men above 20 years of age were counted by each of them donating a half shekel, and the size of the overall nation was extrapolated from this number of men. The language used by the Torah for the description of the census, however, provides much more meaning for us than a simple counting of people or collecting of funds.
Exodus 30:11-12 states, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” The Hebrew words for “when you take a census” literally mean “raise the head,” and we imagine a census involving everyone lifting up their heads to be counted as a member of the community, and simultaneously lifting up their heads in pride at their accomplishments as individuals. When you lift up your head, for what will you be remembered? How will people speak about you?
One answer to this question of how we will be remembered can be found in an interesting distinction that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (former chief rabbi of Great Britain) notices between the two sets of tablets (with the Ten Commandments written on them) discussed in our Torah reading. The first set of tablets Moses receives from God and brings down to the children of Israel while they are dancing around the Golden Calf. Moses is so upset at them for their actions that he throws the tablets down to the group and breaks them. Moses punishes the nation, and then goes back up to Mt. Sinai and receives a second set of tablets from God.
This story is well known, probably one that many of us have known for many years. What is less well known is that the two sets of tablets containing the Ten Commandments were not identical. The first set is described in this way (Exodus 31:18), “When He (God) finished speaking with him (Moses on Mount Sinai), He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.” The second set of tablets is described in the following way (Exodus 34:1), “The Lord said to Moses: Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I (God) will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”
Did you notice the difference between the two sets of tablets? The first set was made entirely by God, while the second set is made by God and Moses together. In the first set Moses is passive, and in the second set Moses carves the tablets and God inscribes them. One might guess that the first set, created solely by God, would have more holiness than the tablets created jointly by God and human beings, and yet it is the tablets created jointly by God and human beings that survive, while the first set of tablets, made entirely by God, is destroyed by Moses.
As Rabbi Sacks teaches, perhaps the reason that the tablets created by God and human beings together survives is because human nature feels deeply connected and affected by moments when we take the initiative, when we play a role in changing our reality. What an incredible idea! We look around our world and we are often dismayed at what we see; such beauty is possible, and yet there is so much hatred and ugliness. And what is perhaps the worst problem of all? When we see in our world challenges that seem insurmountable, that seem so large, complex, and overwhelming that we don’t even bother trying to fix them, to effect a tikkun, a repair, in our world, because after all, we reason, what’s the point?
It is at those moments we must remember this powerful teaching that we learn from Moses. We need to play a role and get our hands dirty in the challenges we face in the world. If we do that, if we try our hardest to effect change and bring the spirit of God into this world, then without a doubt we will be continuing in the tradition of Moses and the tablets that he carved will still be providing guidance for all of us. And to end where we began, remember the census at the beginning of our Torah reading? We will all be counted for something at the end of our lives. That is beyond our control. What is within our control, however, is exactly what we will be counted for. Make your mark, cause a change, leave this world a better place than you found it. If you do that, then you will be able to hold your head high and be counted without regrets.