Pledges of value
Behar-Bechukotai - Leviticus: 25:1-27:34
May 16, 2012
The second part of this week’s double parsha, Bechukotai, begins with a section known as the Tochehah, meaning warning, reproach, or rebuke. In it, God states: If you follow My laws, you will be blessed with prosperity, security, and victory over your enemies, but if you do not follow My commandments, you will experience a long list of curses, including disease, crop failure, starvation, war, and exile.
The Tochehah concludes with words of comfort — God will not abandon His people or the covenant established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When the people abandon their disobedience and do teshuva (repentance), God will forgive them.
The last section of this parsha, and the book of Vayikra, is a discussion of voluntary gifts that people might make to the central sanctuary. A person could pledge real estate, animals, or even the value of a human being and then redeem that pledge with money.
The Torah doesn’t tell us why people might make these pledges, but their reasons were undoubtedly much like those that cause us to make donations today — as a gesture of gratitude for good fortune or in memory of past kindness. For example, it’s easy to imagine parents pledging the value of their oldest daughter to the Temple on the occasion of her marriage or someone pledging his own value after he recovers from a serious illness.
But just what is the value of a person? The Torah provides us with a convenient table:
• For adults between 20 and 60 years of age: 50 shekels for a man, 30 for a woman
• For youths between five and 20 years of age: 20 shekels for a male, 10 for a female
• For children between one month and five years of age: five shekels for a male, three for a female
• For elders aged 60 and above: 15 shekels for a male, 10 for a female.
Today, just about everyone probably finds this categorization offensive. However, these numbers don’t indicate the true worth of a human being, only his or her economic value.
At the beginning of this week’s double parsha, in Behar, the Torah describes how life will be structured once the Israelites have settled in their land. Each household will be given its own plot of land, and the people (other than the priests and Levites) will all be farmers. In such an environment, with plowing, planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting to be done, an individual’s economic value was essentially his or her ability to do farm labor — that is, a reflection of their physical strength and stamina. With this in mind, the table of valuations makes sense for determining a person’s economic value.
But the Torah has much more to say about the worth of a human being. The Sifra, an early rabbinic commentary on the book of Vayikra, teaches: “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva says that this is the greatest principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says that “This is the book of the generations of Adam” (Bereishit 5:1) is a greater principle.
Why? Because Ben Azzai’s choice signifies that just as all human beings are descended from Adam, the first human being, so also are all human beings created in the image of God — and therefore, every human life is of infinite worth.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.