By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
An American billionaire, the only billionaire I have ever met, once spent the better part of a Saturday evening trying to convince me that the rate at which his income is was taxed should be no higher than the rate at which mine is was taxed. (I was working in the US at the time.) How can it be considered fair, he asked, that he should give the government more of each dollar he earned than I did?
He was not actually interested in hearing an answer to that question. I was ready to make what I thought was a cogent and compelling case for a graduated income tax, but billionaires, it seems, feel that we can learn more by listening to them than they can learn by listening to us. That one actually told me so directly, in precisely those terms.
That encounter comes to mind each year when we read about the half-shekel tax, the “donation to the Lord” that is mandated at the beginning of this week’s parashah (Exodus 30: 11-16). It was a poll tax, a standard amount to be paid annually by every adult male Israelite for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, and later of the Temple in Jerusalem. In time, it came to be the primary source of revenue for the Temple in Jerusalem, collected, in late antiquity, not only throughout Eretz Yisrael but from diaspora communities as well. (Did our ancestors have a better formula than we have for maintaining Jewish unity around the globe?)
That half-shekel impost goes beyond even my billionaire interlocutor’s demands for non-discrimination. It is the ultimate poll tax, not pegged in any way to one’s income or assets. Rich and poor alike pay exactly a half shekel of silver. “The rich man shall not give more and the poor man shall not give less.” Why so? What, I might ask in the spirit of my undelivered Saturday night rejoinder, is fair about that?
The Torah characterises this payment not as a tax but as a ransom. Jewish culture even today preserves the folk belief that it is dangerous for a group of people to be counted. We count people at prayer with words from a ten-word verse rather than by numbering them “one, two, three…”. In the Torah, a census is often followed by a plague. The underlying belief in the ancient Near East seems to have been that people counted and organised by number are easy prey for demons.
Nations facing war need to count their able-bodied men, though, so a way must be found to avert the attendant danger. Paying a ransom as a donation to the sacred sanctuary can accomplish that. And that is precisely where the egalitarian thrust enters the picture. No one’s life is more valuable than another’s. No one can claim to be “worth” more than anyone else in this situation. No Israelite, however wealthy, gets to offer a larger ransom as assurance that he or she will survive even if some are to fall victim to the malevolent forces. In this, we are all equal. Rich or poor, well-connected or marginal, in one’s prime or well past it – these distinctions matter not at all in the eyes of the Lord.
With the half-shekel passage as our reminder, may we be blessed with similar regard for the intrinsic value of all human beings – those close around us and those far away.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman serves as Av Bet Din of the Masorti Bet Din of Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem.