B'chukotai: The Worth of a Life

For Congregation Ner Shalom and B'nai Israel Jewish Center, May 3, 2013

I heard a very moving story on NPR last week about a college senior back east who had signed up on a bone marrow donation registry a couple years ago and then forgot about it. Last week he got a call that he was a perfect match for a young man with aggressive leukemia. The odds of a perfect match outside of his family were 1 in 4 million. The hook of the story was this: the college senior was an aspiring athlete heading into the America East Championships, the culmination of his college track career. If he underwent the surgery to draw 2 liters of bone marrow from his pelvis, he would be unable to lift anything above his head for several weeks. As fate would have it, the young man's events were discus toss and shotput.

His college athletic career would be over without ever winding up. Meanwhile, the anonymous marrow recipient would not be cured of his leukemia. But he would, hopefully, have another year, maybe more.

The news stories were quick to point out that the college athlete did not hesitate in deciding to undergo the procedure rather than become a track champion. I'd hope we would all do the same.  But the media spin of one person's life pitted against another's got me thinking about the old question of the value of a human life. What is a life worth? What is a year worth? Especially when it is someone else's year? A stranger's year.

This is not the first time I've had cause to dwell on the topic of the value of a life. Among my dark secrets is that I am a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. That institution is famous, among other things, for its School of Law and Economics. Under its principles, the world operates as a sort of marketplace, and value makes itself manifest through economic markers. What I mean is that lives - and everything else - have value that can be quantified in economic terms, and then that value has a sort of purchasing power. So, for instance, let's say there's a hazard aassociated with a particular industry and so many workers die from it in the course of a year. Let's say there's a possible solution to the hazard, but it is very expensive. If the families of the lost workers sue the industry, the industry will have to pay out the value of those workers' unlived lives. If the total cost of those payouts is higher than the cost of the expensive safety measure, the industry will put the fix into effect not because it's right, but because it's cheaper. They will need neither Congress nor conscience to require it. That is the theory. It is rather an ugly theory. In its crass conversion of a life into dollars and cents, it suggests that life's market value is more important than its inherent value. It presumes that money is the primary or sole motivator of human conduct. And maybe that's ugly because it is, sadly, so often true.

My discontent with what my alma mater unleashed on the world came rushing back to me this week as I found in Torah a section doing, seemingly, just such an exercise: assigning cash value to the lives of various types of people. I was preparing to read two aliyot of this week's Torah portion, B'chukotai.

In these eight verses I am to chant (Leviticus 27:1-8), the priests are given instructions on how to assess the cash value (erech) of a vow or pledge (neder) that is made on the basis of someone's life.

Let me explain this.

As you know, in biblical times, obligatory Temple sacrifices were the cornerstone of our religious life. The ancient Israelites - our ancestors - would bring their cattle or goats or poultry or grain to the Temple at the prescribed times. Sacrifices would be made, and the priests would also get fed in the process. But if you've ever been in the religious institution business, as many of you currently are, you know that one must do more than feed the rabbi. The electricity needs to run, and the gas and water. Repairs have to be made. Plus insurance and bookkeeping and outreach. And all of that requires managerial staff. Just as this is the case in every synagogue, it was also the case in Beyt Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The infrastructure required contributions beyond the sacrifices.

So there was a custom of making generous pledges, specifically gauged to one's own life or the life of a loved one. I can't quite figure out what the etiquette of this might have been. "In honor of Aunt Sylvia's birthday, I pledge the value of her life to the Temple!"

Perhaps it was an evolution from an earlier practice of actually donating the person! Remember the story where Hannah weeps and pledges that if she has a child she will dedicate him to the service of the Temple, and that baby turns out to be Samuel. Perhaps that kind of thing was not uncommon; and maybe over time the Temple administration realized that they needed cash a lot more than they needed hundreds of homesick children.

So this bit of Torah allows those nedarim, those pledges, to be satisfied through money instead. And the amount of money is connected to whose life was pledged. If the person whose life is being appraised was a grown man, the amount of the gift would be 50 silver Temple-standard shekels. It would be only 20 shekels if he were under 20; 5 shekels if he were under 5. If he's elderly he rings up at 15 shekels, which is less than a teenager but more than a toddler. And, sadly but not surprisingly, women pull in between 50 and 67 cents on the shekel, with the gender gap smallest in old age. There are many unanswered questions raised with respect to these valuations, such that an entire tractate of Talmud - Arachin - is devoted to the topic.

Now don't get nervous. This practice officially ended with the destruction of the Temple, so no one is about to ask you to pledge the value of a life to support this community. Probably. No, the practice ended, and all we have to show for it is a story: the story of a now-defunct system that set the value of various and sundry lives. It is disappointing to read in this story how women's lives were valued less; how the elderly's lives were valued less; how young people's lives were valued less. Some commentators have defended this system by noting that it ignores the social circumstances of the life in question. In its valuation of a life, Torah doesn't care if the person is rich, poor, able-bodied, literate, Jew or stranger.

This is unlike our legal system, where those factors do come into play, if not directly then indirectly. For instance, the families of victims of the9/11 attacks were given remuneration based primarily on the lost earning potential of the loved one who was killed. That is, based on their salary. Which meant that the lives of the highest-earning victims - largely white male professionals - were worth more money than the lives of the poorest - largely immigrants and people of color. Although to his credit, Kenneth Feinberg, the Jewish head of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund did skew the formula somewhat to shrink the disparity.

But Torah does not make these economic or educational or social distinctions, say the commentators. It only distinguishes the value of lives based on what it considered to be immutable characteristics - age and gender. So maybe that is better. But on the other hand, isn't that bad enough?

As I chanted the verses over and over, I was glad that they were mine to read, because I would be forced to tussle with them. The passage was irritating me, angering me; it had my household and our non-Jewish house guests up in arms. "What? You still read that? It's outrageous! Whatever for?"

And I silently agreed in part. Not that I shouldn't be reading it, but that I should have some idea what I'm reading it for.

As it happens, my study partner and I read a teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov this week, in which the Chasidic master says that when an enemy speaks ill of you, you should look deep inside to see if there might be a modicum of what it is you're accused of, no matter how innocent you may feel. I realized that for me, this Torah portion felt like an enemy. I didn't like it. I didn't like what it says about us. So following the Ba'al Shem Tov's advice, I wondered if the portion was saying something that might actually have a kernel of truth within me, within us.

Maybe it is this. That we, try as we might not to, much as we decry it as wrong, also valuate different kinds of people differently. Clearly our culture and our media do it all the time. The news story of the missing middle class white woman is worth a lot more television time than the many missing people of color. Guns seem to become a national issue only when the victims are mostly white kids in a group, and not when they are black and Latino kids picked off one by one.

Surely many of us are critical of that injustice. But still, do we not quietly, subtly, unconsciously make similar distinctions ourselves? How many of our judgments about people we know or meet or hear about are, despite our best intentions, colored by that person's race or gender or age or language or wealth or poverty or education or sexual orientation or family life or physical ability or size or attractiveness? How might our perceptions of the bone marrow story be different if we knew something more, maybe something surprising, about the recipient? What different values do we assign to other people's lives without even noticing that we're doing it?

And then, kal b'chomer, all the moreseo, using such harsh standards, what value do we assign to our own lives? In what ways do we feel inadequate because we are not something else that we've been tricked into valuing more?

Maybe the problem is the very idea of valuation. Of displacing our fullness; of translating who we are into something more trivial. As if we are goods at a University of Chicago swapmeet and we are sitting on a shelf wondering what price we will pull in.

Maybe the proper measure of our lives is - wait, maybe our lives don't need to be measured at all. Not against anyone or anything or any currency other than ourselves and our own potential. After all, remember what Rebbe Zushya of Hanipol said. "In the coming world they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zushya?'”

How do we let go of our harsh and hardly-conscious judgments? I don't know. I suspect if we easily could, we already would have. How do we bravely offer up to this world our deep and incalculable worth without worry as to its market value? I don't know that either. The small thing I do know is that Torah is here, warts and all, to remind us of these questions when we otherwise might become too complacent to ask them. That even when Torah looks like an enemy, it is my "frenemy," gently (or not so gently) nudging me to look inside and put my own affairs in order.

And I know that each of our lives, not despite who we are, but because of it, is priceless.