Parshat Behukotai 2019
Two comments on today’s parsha.
How do we assess worth in modern society? The size of the bank account, financial holdings and commercial properties are common indices, and only as a very last resort – perhaps that person’s contribution to the betterment and welfare of society. The final chapter of Vayikra deals with determining a person’s worth in fulfilling a vow to the cohen.
What we find in the parsha is disturbing by modern standards. The person pledging an amount of money based on his worth is given a standard yardstick in the parsha. A man between ages 20 and 60 is worth 50 shekels of silver. A woman – 30 shekels. This is something like the value an insurance company gives to a building when insuring the structure.
According to law Professor Aviad Hacohen, the difference is explained by the greater strength and ability a man has to perform physical labor in the fields.
Interestingly, the gender difference shrinks with age. The worth of a man over 60 shrinks by more than two-thirds, from 50 to 15 shekels, less than one third of the original valuation, while a woman’s worth declines by only two-thirds, from 30 to 10 shekels. The rabbis say that in old age the value of men and women converge, in terms of what they can contribute to the work force. A woman loses less of her value because she can still contribute to the running of the home.
Today, of course, such ageist and gender differentiations are anathema to our sense of equality, and indeed, no matter how we look at it, the differential rankles. Perhaps, though, we should consider the question that the parsha raises, a question that is perhaps even more relevant today than in the far past: how do we assess the value of a person, of any age, of either gender, of any racial or ethnic background? This is a question that we do not think about often enough, and the results are evident in events that occur around the world.
The second matter pertains to the tochecha, the long list of punishments that will be rained down upon us if we do not follow God’s commands.
The blessings which precede the tocheca and which we will enjoy for obeying God and following His commandments, center on two major themes: there’s rain, which will allow the fields to yield their produce and thus provide enough food for us to eat and enough products for us to sell and live from. Economic security. The second is peace. We’ll be able to sleep well at night, and if attacked, a handful of us will be able to rout an army of others. Existential security.
But if we don’t follow, all hell breaks loose. Our land won’t yield its produce, hunger will be rife, we will eat the flesh of our children. We’ll be so stressed out that a leaf shaking in the wind will be enough to send us fleeing in terror, falling to enemies who aren’t even there. Diseases, terrors, pogroms and worse. They’re all there.
Gil Kopatch, a performer and writer, asks a simple question about this chapter: Which of our actions get God so angry?
The answer is somewhat surprising. Although in general we are to be punished for not obeying the commandments, during a pause in the list of curses we find: “Then [when we are exiled] the land will enjoy its Sabbaths…on which it did not rest…when you were living there.”
This is the only specific violation of the laws mentioned. It’s not Shabbat, it’s not forgetting to wear tsitsit or put on tefillin or learn Torah every day, it’s not eating unkosher food. It is shmitta. Allowing the land to rest. Showing concern for the land and everything upon it and everything that lives from it, including humans. It is the jubilee year with the cancelation of debts and the return of the land to its original owners. It is looking after the weak and the poor and the downtrodden.
This is the reason stated for all the debilitating evils that will befall us. What we would call social justice or socio-economic justice.
Vayikra began with purely God-oriented mitzvoth and it ends on mitzvoth between people: assessing a person’s value and ensuring socio-economic justice. Obviously, the mitzvoth between man and God are important, but they are supposed to encourage the observance of the more “mundane” commandments. And they certainly cannot be used as excuses for ignoring or defying the mitzvoth between man and man.