Prologue: A Plague for counting them?! Why?
The Torah notes the danger in counting Bnei Yisroel without the half-shekel intermediary – not using it could invite Negef – a plague onto the people.
What might be the cause of the plague when counting the entire Jewish people including those under twenty? Why the need for a kappara when counting those over twenty?
Rav Shaul Yisraeli z"l, (Shana B'Shana 5722) proposes a fascinating approach. He notes that our survival has never been determined by our number. Indeed, based on purely mathematical considerations, the small numbers of the Jewish People, as compared to the nations of the world who throughout history have attempted to destroy us, would have led to little chance of survival. But, "lo meirub'chem mikol ha'amim chashak Hashem bachem ... ki atem ham'at mikol ha'amim" -- "not because of your great numbers did Hashem desire you, for you are the smallest of the nations" (Va'Etchanan 7:7). On the contrary, in our small numbers lies our strength. "Am zu yatzarti li t'hilati y'sapeiru" -- "I have created this nation; they will recite my praise to me" (Yeshaya 43:21). Through Hashem's Providence over his beloved nation throughout the ages, His Name is sanctified amongst the nations. We have never operated or survived based on the principal of numeric strength. "Yisrael b'tach baHashem" is the ever-present source of our victory against our enemies. The "mispar" of the B'nei Yisrael in the words of Hoshei'a is "that they have no number." Their strength lies in their devotion to their G-d and their faithful carrying of His Word to all of humanity, not in their numerical superiority.
This, adds Rabbi Yaakov Haber (Torahweb, 2003), explains the unique prohibition requiring a machatzit hashekel to atone for the counting of large segments of Am Yisrael and, according to Ramban, the absolute prohibition of counting all of them. Over-reliance on the significance of numbers, ultimately an expression of a lack of reliance on G-d, can lead to a removal of His protection, or a plague.
Reign in the Noise
The story is told of a certain prominent congregation in New York whose decorum was less than stellar. The rabbi would regularly appeal for quiet especially during the Torah reading. He delivered countless impassioned sermons on the matter and gave numerous Shiurim on the issue, all to no avail. The people continued to talk incessantly, turning the services into a disgrace.
On one particular Shabbat, the Torah was removed and the Torah reading started. The noise got louder and the rabbi’s ire was raised. He went up to the Bima, stopped the Baal Korai, and, to the astonishment of the entire congregation, closed the Torah and returned it to the Aron HaKodesh.
He then instructed the Chazzan to begin Mussaf.
The congregation understood the gravity of the situation. Immediately, talking ceased -- a status that continued long after. However, the rabbi was distressed. He was concerned that perhaps he had embarrassed the Torah and sought senior rabbinic guidance to deal with these concerns.
When asked to comment, HaRav Yitzchak Zilberstein Shlita (Sefer V’Haarev Na) noted that the matter seems to be discussed in a Ran in Beitza:
The Talmud discusses a situation of Eruv Tavshilin which, according to Rava is a Takana set up out of respect for Shabbos. That is, the rule of Eruv Tavshilin was set to guarantee that one celebrating Yom Tov will continue to responsibly prepare for the honor of Shabbos. However, if one forgets to establish the Eruv Tavshilin, one may not cook for Shabbos. The Ran asks why not? If the whole purpose of the concept of Eruv Tavshilin was for Kavod Shabbos, what do we gain by denying the person the chance to have a nice Shabbos simply because he forgot to set one up?
The Ran answers that it is better for a person not to enjoy a particular Shabbos and save future Shabbatot in the future. Not to limit his cooking would cause him to forget the Eruv again and again.
Hence, notes Rav Zilberstein, it is ok to nullify Kavod Shabbos in a single instance so that it will be preserved more often in the future. The same would be true here – better to cancel laining once and make sure it happens again appropriately in the future.
Moreover, he adds, the crowd’s talking during laining is a major Avaira. By stopping it, the Rav had prevented continued Torah violation.
When HaGaon HaRav Eliyashiv Shlita was asked about this case, he noted that the Rabbi’s actions, he noted that they were like Moshe’s at the time of the Eigel story. Just as Moshe needed to take a dramatic step to bring the people back in line, so too, the rabbi had acted accordingly. He added that he thought the congregation would have to read two Parshiyot in the next week in accordance with the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Rema, O.C. 135:2, See Mishna Berurah there).