Lives did not add as integers. They added as infinities.

Photo by Szabo Viktor on Unsplash
Photo by Szabo Viktor on Unsplash

Behar/Bechukotai  (Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34)
26 Iyar 5781/May 7-8, 2021

This week’s double portion of Behar and Bechukotai takes us to the end of the Book of Leviticus with a journey that concludes with a very special afterthought. Let’s take the journey for the afterthought.

Everything about the land you are going to enter is holy. As you learn how to nurture, protect, and allow to flourish the holiness of the land, then you will also be learning how to recharge your inner spirituality so that you may continue to flourish.

By this time in the Torah, Moses, even though it took two tries, has been successful in coming down the mountain and presenting the people waiting, with the whole Megillah, all 613 mitzvot and its “teaser trailer,” the Big Ten. After G-D reminds us of G-D’s role in all of this, G-D instructs us in self-care: after you work six days, you will preserve the seventh day as the Sabbath, you will rest and recharge your body and your soul, and I will assure you have what you need on the Sabbath. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Sabbath as Judaism’s gift of a sanctuary in time.

The very opening of Behar reframes the instruction on how to care for the land you are about to enter. You are not a holy people entering just a land I have promised. Rather, you are a holy people entering a holy land I have promised.

Just as Behar tells us to pause on the seventh day to rest and recharge, Behar tells us, almost at its very start, to practice respect for the holiness of the land by enabling the land also to pause, rest and recharge, at the end of seven-day cycles. G-D says, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them:  “When you come into the land which I give unto you; then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord.”

We then learn the importance of the cycles of seven for the rest and re-nourishment of the land. The seventh day every week shall be a Sabbath for the land. The seventh year shall be a special year of rest, It shall be a rest of a year, what we now call a Sabbatical Year. Then the 50th year, after you have completed seven cycles of seven years with a Sabbath at the end of each week, the next year, the 50th year, shall be super-special. It shall be called the Jubilee Year.

Many nations and cultures have adopted special celebrations for a Jubilee Year, the 50th anniversary of a simcha. On the 50th anniversary of my first bar mitzvah, I did it all over again as a Jubilee bar mitzvah, this time with a much deeper perspective.

In the second reading in this double-portion, Bechukotai, our ancestors are given the rewards and punishments that come with G-D’s rules for reverence. It is opens with a formula we see often:  “If in my statutes ye walk, and if my commandants ye keep … I will give you rains in their due seasons, the earth shall yield her products … and ye shall chase your enemies … etc.”

One of the most beautiful rewards comes in Leviticus 26:9-12 in Bechukotai, “…and I will turn myself unto you … and I will walk among you …” This is a major essence of the theology of Judaism:  We are in a Partnership with G-D. It is not G-D is up there and we are down here. If we follow G-D’s ways, then G-D will remain among us. If we do not, then we might be playing Hide and Seek with G-D, because, as we shall teach our children, G-D does not play Hide and Seek with us.

Parsha Bechuckotai could have ended there. As they say in TV infomercial land, “But wait, there’s more.” The “more” is a discussion of the law of eiruchin, the law of determining the value of things and people for the purposes of pledges. Both the Hoffberger Institute for Text Study in modern times and the Modzitzer Rabbi (1849-1921) referred to eiruchin here as :an afterthought, “it’s not easy to understand what is is doing in this parsha.”

Two aspects of eiruchin which I find intriguing are: a) the kohanim are to determine the amount of the pledges; and b) in doing so, their dauntless challenge is developing a formula for the value of a person. This question has stymied actuaries, philosophers, anthropologists and all sorts of other  “ … ists” forever. As recently as 2005, in a memoir book by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, What is Life Worth?, Feinberg shared his frustrations on chairing the program that distributed compensation to the victims of 9/11.

In its early days, Psychology Today  ran an article on the actuarial determination of the compensation value of passengers from many countries and cultures who perished in a hypothetical airplane crash. In trying to quantify the impossible, some cultures clearly valued future earnings potential over the wisdom of the aged and some cultures placed considerable value on the non-monetary contributions the elders give to their societies.

The kohanim actually developed a formula for the value of a person here, after they respected the compassion for those who might not be able to afford the pledge. The kohanim relied on their default comfort zone of a holiness perspective and used the only two demographic variables available to them at that time:  a person’s gender, and a person’s age. The smallest pledge level was “three shekels of silver,” for a female between one month and 5 years of age. The highest pledge category was “Fifty shekels of silver, in the currency of the Sanctuary,” for men “from the age of 20 until the age of 60.” Pledge amounts for those over 60 were lower.

The challenge is also beautifully and succinctly put in a science fiction book, Borders of Infinity, where the author, Lois McMaster Bujold, writes, “He was shaken by an unwelcome insight. Lives did not add as integers. They added as infinities.”

In 2016, Rabbi Richard Address wrote in, reflecting on Bechukotai, “… what, how and whom do we value?” …“We come to a stage when our values begin to be rethought. Once again, a message from our tradition is that people and relationships are what is of greatest value in our own life. It is through them that we create meaning, have value and, to be truthful, come to value our own time and self. And that sense of self worth and self value is priceless.”

Given the insights from the combined wisdom of all the commentators above and culture available to the kohanim setting the value of pledges substituting for people, I posit a theorem of why the Torah reduces the pledge amount in the latest years. In the parsha, a man 20-60 years of age should give a pledge of 50 shekels, but that reduces to 15 shekels after age 60. For a woman, those pledge levels reduce from 30 to 10.

A midrash concerning why our ancestors were selected by receive the Torah was because we guaranteed it with our future generations, we guaranteed it with our children. Therefore, we had to keep the mishkan, the Tabernacle, going also, through pledges and endowments and the continuity of future generations. Hence, Rav Bazak in his commentary, relates the decrease in the amounts of the pledge in the latest years of life to proof texts relating to the end of fertility, i.e., to the end of the ability to produce continuity … of people … and of the Mishkan, our shuls of today.

“We questioned above why a person’s “best years” are up until the age of 60, rather than 50, the “retirement age” for Levi‘im. Interestingly, we find the age of 60 mentioned in Tanakh in a different context – not in relation to work capacity, but rather in relation to fertility:

“Yitzchak was 60 years old when they were born” (Bereishit 25:26); “Then Chetzron came to the daughter of Makhir, the father of Gilad, and he married her – when he was 60 years old, and she bore him Siguv” (Divrei Ha-yamim I 2:21).

The only two places in Tanakh where a person is mentioned as being 60 years old both deal with people who bore children in their later years. The verses emphasize the age in order to indicate the unusual nature of this phenomenon. Thus, it would seem that the age of 60 represents the end of the usual period of fertility, and our parsha conveys the same idea.”

Therefore, I feel that you should support a shul, your sanctuary, not only for its current operating budget, but, through your mitzvot and contributions and the various l’dor v’dor moments you can provide to the shul, so that you give future life to the shul. Perhaps this is another way of looking at the conclusion of Bechuckotai.

Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazek.

[Sources available on request]






1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the perspective on how the kohanim decided on a person’s “worth.” Every year someone gets annoyed at what appears to be sexism and ageism, and this reminds us of the complexities of the situation. And thanks for the plug to support your local shul!

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