The Parsha, weekly Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with a census/tax. Every adult male is mandated to contribute a half-shekel for the maintenance of the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary of the desert, in service until the Beit Mikdash, the Temple build by King Solomon). Not only is everyone assessed the same “flat” tax, but rather than counting ourselves by the head, like cattle, we elevate ourselves by determining our population by what we produce and contribute.
Of course, everyone complains about paying taxes, but the tax that free people give to fulfill their responsibility rather than out of coercion is actually a declaration of that freedom. And, as a mitzva, it also binds us as a community, as a people, to our Creator.
The Jewish people had only recently been taken from Egyptian slavery. And our slavery had been bitter, indeed, as we recall each year at our Pesach Seder. We were thrust suddenly from a privileged and protected position as the family of the man who had recently saved Egypt from destruction, in Egypt’s most fertile region, Goshen, into lives of forced labor, physical abuse and hopelessness. The slavery never stopped biting into our flesh and our souls.
But we weren’t the first slaves of Pharaoh. Rather, the Egyptian people themselves suffered that fate. But it fell upon them much more gradually–so gradually, in fact, that they probably were never even aware of their decline and probably never realized that they had become slaves. We read the continued story of Yosef in parshat Shemot where, in the successive years of famine, the Egyptians first sold their possessions and then their land and eventually themselves in exchange for food. In just seven years, they went from a culture who created their own wealth and met their own needs, to one that had everything provided them by their leaders. As is said about frogs in a pot of water that is gradually heated, they didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. And as they gradually grew accustomed to their ever-increasing dependence, they didn’t even realize that they were no longer free. And thus they went along with tormenting the Jewish people whom they, falsely, saw as the only slaves in the picture. We never hear of them even crying out.
It’s never good to be tormented and enslaved, but if you are, having it suddenly imposed on you, as has happened to the Jewish people time and time again, is the preferable horror. Yes, we grew so discouraged that at one point the men separated themselves from their wives, totally giving up on the future. But we remembered it wasn’t always thus and realized we were in pain. Not willing to accept ourselves as victims, we had the awareness to cry out to God, even as we lacked hope.
It was that awareness of our true situation, with no candy-wrapping or window-dressing trying to fool ourselves that it really was normal for us to be oppressed, that refusal to accept that perhaps we really did deserve victimhood, that led us to call out. And that cry began the process of our redemption. Then, as a free, albeit imperfect people, we went on to escape from Egypt, to stand at Sinai, to build our Mishkan and to take on each of ourselves, freely, the obligations to ourselves as a community.