For an explanation of the methodology of this series, see the introduction.

"When you take the sum [lit. raise the heads] of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted." (Ex. 30:12)

Peshat (basic meaning):

Rashi: When you take [lit. lift]
An expression of taking, as Onkelos renders. [I.e.,] when you wish to take the sum of their numbers to know how many they are, do not count them by the head, but each one shall give a half-shekel, and you shall count the shekels. [Thereby] you will know their number.

Siftei Chachamim: Here Rashi points out that the giving of the half-shekalim does not accompany the count, but precedes it. Therefore Rashi says above, "When you wish to take..."and not "when you take."

"you will know their number"
The Torah states that when Moses will count the Children of Israel they should each give a half-shekel. It is not evident from the Torah itself that they are counted by these coins; Rashi says that this is so. Furthermore Rashi points out that the verse is not a command to count the people, but teaches how to go about it when counting them.

...the evil eye has power over numbered things...

then there will be no plague among them:
for the evil eye has power over numbered things, and pestilence comes upon them, as we find happened in David's time. (II Sam. 24)

Remez (hinted meaning):

Baal HaTurim: "take the sum of the children of"
The initial letters of these words—taf,alef,resh,beit--have a gematria of 603, which is the number of thousands counted in this census. Also the gematria of "Benei Yisrael' [meaning, Children of Israel] is 603.

Venatenu [They shall give] is a palindrome: if you read it backwards it will also read Venatenu. This tells you that what a person gives to charity will come back to him; he will not be missing anything as a consequence of giving.

"To count" is mentioned 3 times in this verse. Also the portion mentions the half shekel' 3 times, 'atone for his soul' 3 times, to atone' 3 times, and Children of Israel' 3 times. This hints that the counting of the Children of Israel indirectly by each donating a 1/2 shekel will effect atonement and then protect them against 3 things: war, famine, and pestilence. Thus, when David sinned by taking a direct count of the people, Gad the prophet said to him, "Thus says G‑d, I am holding three things upon you." (II Sam. 24:12)

Derash (interpretive meaning):

"This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel." (Ibid. 13)

Moses instituted a silver was a perfect weight and it had nothing defective in it...

Ramban: Moses instituted a silver coin, for he was a great king. (Deut. 33:5). He called it a "Shekel" [literally "weight"] for it was a perfect weight and it had nothing defective in it and no dross. That is why the Torah calls it a Shekel of holiness. That is the same reason why our Rabbis call the language of the Torah "Lashon Kodesh", the Sacred Language (Sotah 32a), because all the Torah and the prophecies and all words of holiness [the writings] were all expressed in that language. It is thus the language in which G‑d spoke with His prophets, and all the other communications of the Torah and prophecy are in that tongue.

Ohr HaChayim: The secrets of this law are not evident to the regular person. Midrash Tanchuma describes how G‑d showed Moses the appearance of a coin of fire situated beneath His throne. G‑d told Moses that the visible element of this law is secondary to the invisible element. That is why the coin described to Moses is presented as an image and not the real thing.

The Shechinah is often referred to by our Sages as "The Throne of G‑d's Glory"; its proximity to the Jewish people is determined by their conduct. The alienation between G‑d and Israel resulting from the episode of the Golden Calf affected the roots of all Jewish souls, which are situated beneath His throne. G‑d therefore commanded the giving of the half-shekel, taken from that exact place, to symbolize that their previous action had resulted in them becoming separated from Him. The contribution of this half shekel was to repair the damage done through the people's contributions of gold to the Golden Calf.

When G‑d showed Moses the coin of fire as being immediately under His Throne, He drew his attention to the mystical dimension of this law. Payment of a ransom is not merely a transaction in this material world, but has far reaching effects in the spiritual domain, dependant on the giver involving his heart. Each commandment is meant to close a gap that may exist between G‑d and man. The contribution here restored one's closeness with G‑d.

Maggid Mesharim: The secret of the half shekel is part of the secret of the Ruach/spirit and Neshama/living soul, when a person wants to merit being connected to the spirit. The spirit and living soul combined are called the Shekel. They are also called "sela" which is an older coin = 2 shekels. Since a person can soil one's soul with worldly pleasures and lusts, he must pay compensation to purity his living soul and render it worthy of combining with the spirit.

The verse means "when you wish to raise" the aspect of "the living soul of the children of Israel" to connect it to the spirit, "every man shall pay a ransom for his soul" from the good that G‑d has given him; he should pay compensation to purify his soul to connect it to the spirit. Then "there will not be among them [those who have paid compensation] a plague," [which can also be interpreted as] 'a person routed by his opponent' [for one broken by an opponent is called a 'neegaf']. The verse states that when they pay compensation for their souls to G‑d, there will be nothing to block the person's soul from uniting with the spirit. So indeed they will unite "at the time G‑d remembers their souls." [The word used in the verse for 'count', pakod, also means remember - Ed.].

R. Meshulam Zusya of Anipoli: The way to lift up the heads of the people is to remind them often of their purpose of life — tikkun olam, to repair the world, through doing exquisite acts--mitzvot. (Imrei Pinchas)

R. Yitzhak Meir of Gur: The way to lift up the Rosh/head—to cause it to progress— is to follow the progression of letters in the Alef Bet. 'Rosh' is spelled Resh, Alef, Shin. The subsequent letters are Shin, Bet, Tav, which spell Shabbat/Sabbath. The way to lift up the head—cause the rational fixation of the people to progress—is to celebrate a true Shabbat, going into the supra-mental, the source of the logic in which the head becomes stuck. Experiencing a guileless Shabbat is an evolution of the head's inclination to divide and classify everything in details. (Chidushei Harim)

R. Yitzhak Yaakov of Biale: Be like a coin. Every coin has a stamped imprint on it, like a face. Don't lose your own face, doing things that blend you into a group perfectly so you become a number and lose your distinction your personality your face. Integrate your personality into holiness by giving something away, but not your own face. Let your face be separate. (Divrei Bina)
By giving away a few coins you will feel purified ...

Slonimer Rebbe: Fire burns away impurities in metals. By giving away a few coins you will feel purified of emotional issues that are troubling you, as if you had passed your soul through fire.

R. Yitzhak Meir of Gur: Giving can be flat or fiery. The giver gets value from his giving only when it is passionate and fiery, not if the giving is coerced or giving in coldness and reluctance. (Chidushei Harim)

Lubavitcher Rebbe: "G‑d showed Moses a coin of fire weighing 1/2 shekel and He said, "They should give one like this." (Rashi on v. 13) Fire differs from all the other elements on this earth in that it strives upwards, reaching ever higher, dancing and flickering, until finally it frees itself of its chains when the wick burns out and it unites with its source. Fire is the paradigm of self-effacement, having no distinct form or shape of its own.

A coin, however, is from the depths of the earth, the lowest of the 4 elements [i.e. fire, air, water, and earth] that constitute the make-up of this world. The antithesis of fire, the coin, falls ever downward, clearly defined in its shape and form. Fire = transcendance of the spiritual; coin = crassness of the physical. It is not despite this sharp contrast but specifically because of it that G‑d showed Moses the coin of fire, teaching him that the coarse and unrefined is not necessarily the antithesis of the most holy and pure.

The two can work in harmony until they reach complete fusion, absolute unity, as in a coin made of fire. On a practical level, G‑d taught Moses that even coarse human beings driven by their selfish motives with self-love as a basic instinct can also serve the Divine with the most noble of services, as represented by the complete selfless-ness of fire. (Likutei Sichot)

Sod (esoteric, mystical meaning):

Zohar Tisa 187:
Come and see: it has been established that supernal blessing does not dwell on something that is numbered. And if you ask how Israel were counted, he [Moses] took from them a ransom for themselves. And they did not count until all the ransom that was gathered was counted. At first Israel are blessed; afterwards, once they counted the ransom, Israel are blessed again. So we find that Israel is blessed at the beginning and at the end and they did not suffer a plague, which can come because blessing does not dwell on anything numbered, and since the blessing has departed, the Other Side dwells on it and can harm.

BeRahamim LeHayyim:
We Jews have been not counting ourselves for thousands of years. Minyan formers count to ten by assigning people to words in ten-word verses, such as "Hoshia (1) et (2) Amecha(3) uVareik (4) et (5) Nahalatecha (6) uR'aim (7) veNas'aim (8) ad (9) HaOlam (10)." (Psalms 28:9) Or, if you have trouble remembering verses, try Baruch (1) Atah (2) Hashem (3) Elokaynu (4) Melech (5) HaOlam (6) HaMotzi (7) Lechem (8) Min (9) HaAretz (10).
The mystic reason why we do not count is: blessing does not dwell on anything numbered, and since the blessing has departed, the Other Side dwells on it and can harm. The last thing we want to do is to prevent our people from receiving the flow of blessing and open ourselves up instead to the channels of negativity.
That is why some people say " I have not 5 children", even though the Law permits one to say the number of children; it is the actual counting that is problematic. King David was punished for taking a census. (I Chronicles 21).
We are vessels, each and every one, receiving life force energy every second. The most holy and connected of us know good only, although it is at times concealed. Perhaps one of our jobs is to make our vessel the best receptor possible, perfecting any blemishes, and fulfilling the verse: "I will pour you out a blessing which will be more than sufficient." (Malachi 3:10)

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