Equality vs. Meritocracy

Equality vs. meritocracy: how do they square with one another? As fair and reasonable people we want everyone to have equal opportunities and benefits, yet when some people put in more effort and/or achieve more than others, shouldn’t they be rewarded for it? The building of the Desert Tabernacle and its funding speaks to this very quandary. 

Parshat Ki Tisa begins with a commandment to take a census of the people of Israel by collecting a half shekel from everyone. These half shekels were collected and used to form the adanim which were the silver sockets that supported the 48 beams that made up the inner courtyard of the Tabernacle. The Torah is very specific about how much everyone must give: 

Exodus 30:15
הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃
The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons.

This is quite noteworthy! The overall Tabernacle was built from unsolicited generous donations by individual Israelites. Depending on how much someone possessed and how motivated they were to donate inspired what and how much to give. So, why when it came to this half shekel was it biblically mandated that only this specific amount, no more and no less, could be given?  

Several answers are advanced to address this question:

The Chizkuni - Hezekiah ben Manoah, a French rabbi and Bible commentator of the 13th century, explains that since this was also used as a census, it was imperative that everyone give the same amount so the accounting would be accurate.

The Daat Zkeynim, a Torah commentary compiled by later generations of scholars from the writings of the Franco-German school in the 12th-13th century (Ba’alei Tosafot), adds that since this was also for atonement, no one should be able to purchase more spiritual atonement than another due to their generosity. .

I want to share one final answer that resonates powerfully now that we just experienced Super Sunday and all of the generosity that was displayed. 

The half shekels were used specifically for the silver sockets that supported the beams that formed the holy space of the Tabernacle. When the Torah mandated that everyone should give the same amount for this particular collection, it demonstrated that everyone plays an equally important role supporting the holiness and goodness of the community. While some may have more to give and some have less, and the larger givers should be recognized appropriately for their great contributions, and everyone needs to know that despite differences in talent and resources everyone plays a significant role in the foundational wholeness of the community.

This is also the reason offered why we give a half shekel and not a whole one to show that we need each other to be whole. We cannot do it alone.

It is the Jewish way that anyone and everyone is welcome and needed to do their part to strengthen their community and fulfill their unique role that only they can do as well.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence