Cultural psychologists Angela Leung and Dov Cohen distinguish between three paradigms of culture: dignity, honor, and face. In dignity cultures, honor and dignity are intrinsically possessed by all. Everyone has inherent worth, which cannot be taken away and does not depend on others’ conferral. In honor cultures, one must claim honor to possess it and it must then be reciprocated and given by others. Otherwise, one does not have honor. In face cultures, people are placed into general social hierarchies and have a “face,” or social standing, within that hierarchy. They cannot claim more face than allowed in their position, and they could lose face depending on their actions. Since these are just paradigms, sometimes a given population or group may espouse different components of the varying concepts.
In his book Created Equal, Professor Joshua Berman argues that in contrast to the other ancient Near Eastern cultures of the time, the Torah argues for what we can loosely call a “dignity culture.” From his analysis of political hierarchies, economics, education, and narrative accounts, he concludes that the Torah is generally egalitarian in how it treats individuals and promotes equality amongst all. His research was inspired by the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who argues in several of his works that one of the central tenets of the Torah is that “every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God” (Not in God’s Name, p. 4). There is an intrinsic honor and respect, referred to by the Sages as kavod haberiyot, that is inherently granted to all.
The beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa relates the obligation to give the half-shekel, which functioned both as a way to count the people and as a monetary donation to the Mishkan. Everyone was obligated to give the same exact amount – “The wealthy shall not exceed nor shall the poor fall short of a half-shekel, to give the offering of God” (Shemot 30:15). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein notes that the language used by God in telling Moshe to take a census of Bnei Yisrael is strange. The word used to denote the counting of the half-shekel is tisa, meaning “raise” or “carry,” which is a rather inexact way of saying to collect. A more precise word choice, Rabbi Feinstein suggests, would have been “timneh” or “tifkod.” The use of the word “tisa” must have a hidden message embedded within.
Rabbi Feinstein suggests that one might have thought that the righteous, the rich, or the privileged classes should be more involved and give more money. The symbolism behind everyone giving the same half-shekel is that everyone is equal, and everyone has the potential to contribute substantively. This is why the verse uses the word “tisa,” which also means “to lift up,” alluding to the fact that the contribution elevates the people by leading them to realize their equality and worth. The message is one of dignity for all.
This idea has important ramifications for both the interpersonal and intrapersonal realms. When it comes to how we treat others, it is important to remember that all humans are created in the image of God and that everyone has a basic right to dignity and worth. Keeping this in mind will help us interact more civilly and respectfully with those with whom we may disagree.
In terms of how we relate to ourselves, many people struggle with rejection, feelings of worthlessness, and shame. These sentiments can stem from traumatic experiences and can be very hard to shake. Rehearsing the core belief that we have inherent dignity (in the technical sense) and worth, gifted by God as being created in His image, which is immutable and irrevocable, despite what others or our inner critic may say, could be a helpful strategy to help cope with such difficulties.