Just Say No to Evaluating People
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Behukotai is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
The last chapter of Leviticus is all about erkhin (evaluations) of pledges to the Temple. (The word is technically pronounced arakhin.) Startlingly, it deals with the erkhin of people! What if someone makes a vow to donate the erekh (value) of a living person? For example, “I donate my daughter’s erekh” or “I pledge what I’m worth.”
The Torah presents something like an actuarial table, with an official value for males and females of four different age groups. But this doesn’t answer a basic question: is it a positive or a negative thing to pledge people’s value? While both approaches appear in the commentaries, in the limited space here I want to accentuate the negative. (I latch on to the affirmative here.)
DON’T VOW, JUST DO IT!
One objection to the erkhin of people is actually an objection to nedarim (vows) in general. Since the halakhah considers a pledge to be binding (whether to charity or the Temple), making a pledge is creating an unnecessary obligation for yourself.
The Netziv suggests that this objection is implicit in the unusual verb that introduces the subject. The word “yafli,” while usually translated “make a vow,” is related to the word “pele,” which means amazing or astonishing. According to the Netziv, the Torah means it is astonishing that a person would obligate himself in something that God doesn’t want! He notes that the midrash here (Vayikra Rabbah 37:1) cites a verse which declares it is better not to vow at all than to take a vow and not fulfill it (Ecclesiastes 5:4). According to Rabbi Yehudah in the midrash, the verse means that you should never obligate yourself with a vow; if you want to donate a sheep to the Temple, skip the vow and just bring it.
It reminds me of the 1980 hit by The Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” The song begins with a startling stanza:
Don’t think me unkind / Words are hard to find
They’re only checks I’ve left unsigned / From the banks of chaos in my mind
And when their eloquence escapes me / Their logic ties me up and rapes me
These jarring lyrics by Sting seem to accord with the position of Rabbi Yehudah. In the case of an erekh or any other neder, merely verbalizing the commitment is like tying yourself up. (I have a quibble with Sting’s allegory, though. Words you said are more like checks you did sign, which is why you have to pay up.)
2 4 6 8 – WHO SHOULD WE EVALUATE – NO ONE!
Abarbanel argues that the erkhin of people is a dangerous idea. If the Torah had followed the logical implication of donating a person’s value and had instructed the kohanim to appraise each person individually, that would have caused jealousy and resentment. Let’s say one person received a high evaluation because of her intelligence, and another person received a low evaluation because of his nearsightedness; she would become arrogant, his self-esteem would suffer, and their relationship would be poisoned.
Fortunately, the Torah refuses to go along. As the Gemara points out in a different context, “Who says that your blood is redder?” You can’t possibly know whose life is worth more. Instead, says Rav Hirsch, the Torah offers a kind of equality – within each category, such as men from 20 to 60, everyone is assigned the same value. This way, nobody has any illusions that one individual is worth more than another.
HUMAN LIFE IS PRICELESS
A third problem with the erkhin of people is that since human beings are all created in the image of God, evaluating them is intrinsically degrading. (Abarbanel adds: “as if they were a horse or donkey.”)
According to the Ra’avad, the money paid for this pledge is not categorized as damim (a standard monetary obligation) but rather as kenas (a fine). The subtle message is that God is not happy with it (Biur, p. 425). More explicitly, according to Rav Elchanan Samet, the reason that the Torah bases an erekh on actuarial criteria (rather than evaluating each individual) is to convey the message that a donation cannot represent an individual’s value, because the true value of a human life is infinite.
We have seen three objections to pledging people’s value: it creates an unnecessary obligation, it’s corrosive, and it’s degrading. On the flip side, we can conclude that people should do the right thing rather than make promises, do their best rather than compare themselves to others, and realize that their life is of infinite value. LeChaim!
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