Parsha Emor takes us through a variety of issues, from the special nature of the priesthood, to a recitation again of calendar and sacred time, to issues surrounding additional laws of social and tribal behavior. In this portion, we meet, in Leviticus [24:17]-22, texts that describe what is often referred to “lex talionis”. If someone kills another human being “that person shall be put to death”. “Life for life” appears here, as it does in other sections of Torah. There has been lots of commentary on this concept of “life for life, eye for eye” etc. The bulk of tradition understood these texts to mean monetary compensation, and that seemed to be codified within Talmudic comments from Baba Kamma 84a.
This discussion of money and life gets played out in our world in many ways. Often the discussion of life does reflect a huge concern about money. A recent (April 26, 2018) New York Times piece focused on “A Financial Bill of Rights” article by Elisabeth Rosenthal. The article overviews what rights we should have as we enter the medical system.It is a very disturbing piece when you realize that we enter that system without really knowing much about potential costs and most of us reading this are one medical emergency away from financial stress.
But in reading Emor and in discussion with a Torah class on the portion, the issue of how much we value our own lives came up. The tradition speaks to the issue of monetary compensation, often decided by courts. We have similar decisions today from courts and values established by insurance companies. They often place a “value” on us or our parts. But what value do we place on our own life, especially as we get older? We know people who, for a variety of reasons,loose that sense of value as they age. They may have outlived spouses, children and friends. They may ask one of the great spiritual questions of modern life, asked by those who outlived their social network as well , often, as their resources; and they ask “why am I still alive?” Every clergy person who works with people in illness situations has had this discussion.
And yet, there are those people, who may be in the same life situation, who seem to see each day as a blessing and another chance to live life. How people come to value their own lives is a complicated and very personal story. Our tradition teaches that each of us, by our very existence, has worth, value and dignity. Let me suggest that one of the messages of Emor can be that we need to see in life the value of our own existence, no matter what our circumstance. This can be a great challenge as longevity and the challenges of debilitating disease can make life difficult. Yet, with life there is always the possibility of living, of doing mitzvot and being a vehicle to allow others to do mitzvot. By affirming the value of our own life, we make a statement that life is still a precious gift. Often, the challenges in various life stages make this realization difficult and it is in those circumstances that society, a congregation, friends and family can help a person affirm that gift of life.
Rabbi Richard F Address