Thursday, May 15, 2014

B'hukotai- The Value of a Man

…ish ki yafli neder b’er’k’kha n’fashot lAdonai.
…[when] a man utters a vow according to your value of your soul to Adonai.
Sefer Vayikra ends with reminders regarding behaviour and the redemption of objects, of animals, and of people. Redemption is defined chiefly as “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error or evil.” Torah uses the word differently. Redemption is not salvation. It is the clearing of a debt, an exchange of payment. In fact, we are, in some ways, doing the opposite of the first definition. We are exchanging the monetary value of something to remove it from the realm of the holy and bring it into the realm of the profane. With animals and with objects otherwise pledged to the Temple, this is easy.  How many donkeys does one Temple need? There’s always a need for funds. The same goes for other objects pledged as kadosh. Why would the Temple need more land or homes? It did not, and so the system of redemption made sense. Instead of the object or the animal, I shall give you its value. This created a win-win for all. Pilgrims could travel with coins instead of their animals or first fruits. The money would not spoil, nor would it need to be fed. The Temple received the funds to support it.
But a person? How do we value a person? The number is easy. Value was primarily based upon the slave market, though one who could not afford this amount was valued by the Kohain for a lesser amount that would leave him with the means to care for him/herself. We are expected to give. We are not expected to bankrupt ourselves. A male adult could do more physical labour, and was therefore valued higher.
The text, however, doesn’t only speak to the person’s physical self. “B’er’k’kha n’fashot lAdonai.” The individual makes a vow according to his/her own worth. Not only is this how s/he values him/herself, but the value of his/her soul. It is a weighty matter. How can any of us even begin to judge to value of our souls? There is of course a practical lesson in this. Each person making a vow, each person availing him/herself of Temple service is expected to contribute, not only in a physical, but also in a monetary way. The slave value gave a tangible scale to measure this. Nevertheless, I see a greater lesson underlying the p’shat of the text. It is a lesson beyond monetary value, one well summed up in the lyrics of the song, “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from “Prince of Egypt.”
Should a man lose everything he owns
has he truly lost his worth
or is it the beginning
of a new and brighter birth
So how do you measure the worth of a man
in wealth or strength or size
In how much he gained or how much he gave
The answer will come, the answer will come him who tries
to look at his life through heaven's eyes

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