The Parsha opens the reading this week with a Mitzvah to give a half shekel for the sake of taking a census of the people. Every male adult, from age 20 and up, must contribute one half shekel for this census. On the basis of the counting of coins Moshe could then asses how many households the Jewish nation consisted of. One condition of this Mitzvah was that the amount from each contributor was limited to half a shekel (of that particular currency as clarified in the verse). “The wealthy may not add and the poor may not subtract from the half shekel, to give the contribution of Hashem, to atone for the children of Israel.” All contributions were to be equal.
The commentaries discuss this condition of equality. Why indeed must the contribution of each individual be equal to the next? On the surface, the simple answer is that the sum total must provide an indication of the numbers of people. If each person were to give a different amount there would be no way to determine the tally of households based on the total collected. However, there is a simple solution for that without restricting the amounts. ‘Each individual from age 20 and up must give a coin (of whichever value he can afford) on behalf of the census.’ In the end they could count the number of coins and determine the numbers. This type of collection is called in New Zealand a ‘gold coin’ collection. This would enable people to give more generously or more sparingly without compromising the results of the census.
I will share several ideas presented by the commentaries to explain this. One reason given is based on the words of the verse “to atone for the children of Israel.” The purpose of the collection was not solely for the sake of counting the people. It also provided atonement for each individual. An atonement for a soul involves giving the value of the soul in place of the soul itself. Each person is equal in the eyes of G-d and therefore the collection had to reflect this equality. No individual could contribute more or less than the next.
Another reason offered by the commentaries is that it was important to preserve the dignity of each individual. Of course everybody wanted to give much, but not everybody could afford to. G-d ordered that each person give exactly the same amount, an amount affordable even by the poor, so that they should have no shame in their gift.
A third reason offered by the commentaries is that this equality was imposed to prevent quarrels among the people. In most countries the tax system is designed in a way that there is a higher tax rate for greater incomes. Invariably there are disagreements over these tax rates, with the more affluent people feeling exploited and that they are giving far more than they need. At the same time, the poor feel that the rich are not contributing according to their ability and should be giving more. This is the nature of the game and there is no known solution to this problem. When it came to the census, which is also called a ‘contribution to G-d,’ it could not have quarrelsome elements in it and therefore it was determined that the ‘tax’ affect everyone equal