The Value of Human Beings
The final chapter of the Book of Leviticus deals with voluntary contributions to the Sanctuary. In dedication to the Temple, one might pledge the value of one’s life or the life of another person. The beginning of Leviticus 27 addresses the question of how to determine the value of a person in order to fulfill such a vow. The Torah states:
“When anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female” (Lev. 27:2–7).
At first glance, this system raises troubling questions about the estimation of human value in the Torah. To the modern reader, it seems cold and heartless to equate human worth and monetary value. For women, it is especially difficult to read that our value is calculated as sometimes half that of a man the same age. Are we to understand that men are worth more than women? Adults are worth more than children? Teenagers are worth more than the elderly? How are we to understand this difficult passage and to find sacred meaning in its lessons?
First, the practice of vowing the equivalent of a human being is connected to the ancient practice of dedicating one’s life or the life of one’s child in service to the Temple (Eitz Hayyim, p. 753). From this perspective, we can more easily understand why age and gender determine the “value” of the person. A twenty–five year old woman can perform more services for the sanctuary than a six–year old boy. Therefore her monetary equivalent is larger. However, since men were assumed to be physically stronger and more productive, males receive a higher valuation than females in the same age group. The monetary value does not denote moral worth or the level of sanctity. Rather, the donation represents the equivalent value of human labor and service on behalf of the Temple.
I would also like to suggest a different approach to this passage. Perhaps the Torah is making a subtle but powerful statement about the intrinsic value of human beings. Let’s imagine that the Torah had not delineated prescribed amounts for the fulfillment of human pledges. When a person would vow oneself or one’s child as an offering, how would he or she determine the equivalent worth? Which criteria would we use to estimate our worth in the eyes of God? Our wealth? Our intellectual achievements? Our physical beauty? Our discipline and piety? Even if we dared to profess which human qualities are most important to God, would it be possible for us to objectively assess ourselves or those around us? Instead, the Torah assigns impartial measurements: age and gender. In so doing, the Torah teaches us that we cannot truly determine our own inner value. God alone knows our hearts and our souls. Our individual self–worth cannot come from human judgment.
The Haftarah for Parashat Be–hukkotai teaches: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord alone. That one is like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream” (Jeremiah 17:7). When we turn to God alone as the sole Judge of our self–worth, our potential to blossom and flourish is endless. The Lord, the Source of Living Waters (Jeremiah 17:13), nurtures each unique and sacred human being with wisdom, mercy and unending love. However, when we constantly measure our value by our own human standards, our growth is stunted by painful self–judgment or blind egotism. We lose our connection to the ever–present stream of holiness within.
May the stark scale of valuations in this week’s parashah remind us of our human limitations. Human measurements can be cruel. We have the extraordinary potential to dedicate our lives to the service of God. However, we must have faith in God alone as the source of our self–worth.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.