Parashat Ki-Tisa begins with the command of machatzit ha-shekel – the half-shekel tax imposed upon each member of Benei Yisrael from age twenty and above. This command includes both a requirement to use this tax as the method of counting the nation whenever a census needed to be taken, and, additionally, an annual tax, the revenue from which was used for the sacrifices and other needs of the Beit Ha-mikdash.
The Torah specifies that every individual must pay the precise same amount, regardless of financial status: “He-ashir lo yarbeh ve-ha’dal lo yam’it mi-machatzit ha-shekel” – “The wealthy one shall not add onto, and the impoverished one shall not diminish from, the half-shekel [amount]” (30:15). Those who enjoyed material blessing were not permitted to pay higher than the half-shekel amount, and those suffering poverty were not permitted to pay less. (Of course, wealthier members of the nation could give to the poor to enable them to fulfill this mitzva.)
The Maggid of Kozhnitz (Avodat Yisrael) suggested that this law may be seen as a model relevant also to spiritual “wealth” and “poverty.” Just as the wealthy individual may not exceed the half-shekel payment, the Maggid writes, similarly, those who are spiritually “wealthy” should not exaggerate their worth. They must ensure not to think too highly of themselves, and not to view themselves as more important than other members of the nation. No matter how much a person has achieved, he must remain cognizant of his faults and failings, of the fact that he has still not reached his full potential. And, by the same token, the “poor” – those who are religiously “impoverished,” without many good deeds to their credit, should not “diminish” from their sense of self-worth. They should not minimize the value and importance of the mitzvot they have performed, or of their positive character traits and admirable qualities.
The Torah prescribed a single amount for the machatzit ha-shekel payment so that all members of the nation will feel equally represented by the public sacrifices offered in the Mikdash, and see themselves as equal partners in this sacred endeavor. The Maggid of Kozhnitz here suggests that we apply this perspective also to the abstract “Mikdash” that we are to collectively build in fulfillment of our nation’s mission. Am Yisrael will always consist of “wealthy” and “poor,” those who are exceedingly righteous and those who are less so. Nevertheless, we are to see each other as equal members of this enterprise, with each individual working to the best of his or her ability to make his or her unique contribution. We must constantly strive to do our share, without taking too much pride in our successes or feeling too much shame for our failures. As long as we try, we are all equal partners in the “Mikdash,” in the collective effort to be a sacred nation worthy of God’s presence.