May 25, 2000
Worth the Effort
Parashat Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)
So what are you worth? Does it depend on how the market did today? What's your next-door neighbor worth? Does it change as real estate values fluctuate?
If you're figuring that the Torah probably has a different way to answer these questions, you're figuring correctly. Strangely enough, though, it's difficult to find anywhere that the Torah addresses the question explicitly. The final chapter of this week's parsha contains what is probably the most direct discussion of how we properly assess a person's worth. At first glance, the Torah appears to be suggesting a very crude and spiritless system of determination. But the reality emerges from a deeper look.
The final chapter of the parsha deals with a situation in which a person has taken an oath to donate the value of his or her life to the Temple. We are left to speculate about the circumstances that may have prompted such an oath. Perhaps the person has just escaped a life-threatening situation or has recovered from a serious illness, and wants to express appreciation to God, to acknowledge that he owes God his life. Because oaths are serious business in Judaism, and because the person clearly desires to make a contribution to the Temple, his pledge has to be given some kind of precise monetary expression. As such, the Torah assigns actual shekel values to people, as jarring as that is. The shekel amounts vary by age and gender, apparently based upon the differing capacities for manual labor that people of different ages and genders possess. At first, the whole thing appears rather unTorah-like.
The last verse of the section reveals the Torah's true attitude toward the entire matter of placing a value upon or assessing the worth of a human individual. It is in this last verse that the Torah is forced to move away from faceless generalities, to the precise question of what a very specific human individual is worth. "And if the person be too poor to pay the fixed evaluation, then he shall come before the kohen ... and the kohen shall determine his value in accordance with the amount that the person can realistically afford." The kohen doesn't call in a panel of experts to assess the precise worth of this individual. Rather, whatever subjective amount that the person can manage is now officially proclaimed his "worth." It's a legal fiction. The Torah is not accepting the lower payment and forgiving the remainder of the fixed valuation. It's not forgiven. It's irrelevant. For all intents and purposes, when forced to confront the question "How much is this person worth?" the Torah gives a pointed nonanswer.
The Torah refuses even to engage the question. Why? The answer is most powerfully expressed in a passage found in the Mishna. The sages of the Mishna ask why it was that God created numerous specimens of every other creature during the six days of Creation but initially created but one human individual - Adam. Among the answers the sages suggest is that Adam's moment of aloneness was designed to help him understand that all of creation - the heavens and the earth, the seas and the land, the trees and the grass, the birds and the fish and the animals - was created for him alone. As the lone creature capable of moral struggle, the lone creature who could recognize and relate to his Creator, he was what it was all about. He alone was worth all the effort. He was, in God's eyes, the creature of ultimate, absolute value. The sages of the Mishna continue and teach that Adam is every one of us and that anyone of us could have been Adam. "Therefore," the Mishna concludes, "every person is obligated to proclaim, 'For my sake the world was created.' " Everyone one of us is of ultimate and absolute worth.
No wonder then, that the kohen refuses to engage in the exercise of fixing the oath-takers' worth. How do you fix a price for the priceless? How do you assign a value to something of ultimate value? Two fundamental guidelines for living emerge from this understanding. The first is an outward-looking one. We are each surrounded by numerous people, including family, work contacts, strangers. As children of Adam and Eve, they are possessed of absolute value in the eyes of God. How do we speak to, how do we interact with God's priceless gems? How much is their time worth? How important are their feelings?
The second is inward-focused. It directs us to regularly ask ourselves the following kinds of questions: What is it, in reality, that renders me so valuable? What is it that I do that endows me with this ultimate worth? How do I paint the canvas of my life so that the Mishna's assertion about me is no exaggeration? How do I get to the point at which I can look in the mirror and say, "For my sake the world was created, for I too am worth all the work God invested?" These are the questions that are the staging grounds for ultimate human fulfillment.
So what are you worth? Much more than you can calculate.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles.