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Sunday, May 15, 2011

#1 Bechukosai. The Tochecha and the Value of Human Life

A dear friend, Harav Shmuel Yeshaya Keller of Chicago Telshe, shared a nice thought from his father, Harav Chaim Dov Keller, on this week's parsha, and I'd like to share it with you.  The vort is his, the presentation mine.

We Jews understand intellectually and emotionally how very precious human life is.  I recently read a memoir written by a man with whom I am privileged to be very close, Avraham (Romi) Cohen, "The Youngest Partisan."  He describes his experience before, during and after WW II, during which he joined and fought with a group of non-Jewish partisans.  To this day, his courage and strength of character are preeminent.  He is a lion of a man, and it is wise to not stand in his way.  In his book, he describes the tortures he experienced and saw inflicted on others by the Nazis.  Once, his group caught a Nazi, and after questioning him, tied him to a tree facing forwards, with his arms behind him.  Romi was handed a knife and granted the honor of executing the prisoner; he was told not to kill the prisoner quickly.  Standing there, visions of what this man and his friends had done ran through his mind.  But he couldn't do it.  Or, more correctly, he certainly could have done it, but he refused to do it.  He handed the knife to his superior and said that he wanted to be 'mechabeid' him.  As he walked away, he heard as his officer began his work. 

But not everyone is like that.  For many, even for Jews, there are brutalizing experiences that diminish our respect for human life.  Three times in the Torah, we are forewarned about this problem and cautioned to balance what we have seen with kvod habriyos.

After the great mabul, in Parshas Noach, when so many lives were lost, what would murder mean?  Nothing.  Is there any difference at all between 5,555,555 and 5,555,556?  Specifically there (Breishis 9:10), the Torah teaches us , שופך דם האדם באדם דמו יישפך  כי בצלם אלוקים עשה את האדם , one who spills the blood of a man deserves the ultimate punishment, for man was created in Hashem's image.  The great flood was Hashem's will, and even if we were told the reasons it happened, we can never understand why it was necessary and just.  Our job is to remind ourselves, even under the worst circumstances, that human life is precious.

In Parshas Shoftim, the Torah teaches us what must be done when we go to war (Devarim 20:10) and when we lay siege upon our enemies (20:19).  Immediately afterwards, we are taught the dinim of Egla Arufa, the calf that must be brought for atonement for the residents of a city when some unknown criminal murdered someone near their city- perhaps if they had been more welcoming and supportive, the victim would not have felt so impelled to go elsewhere that he chose this dangerous route that resulted in his death.  Yes, there are times of war and of siege, there are times when the shedding of blood is necessary.  But the touchstone, the baseline, is that we need to atone even for not anticipating the feelings of an itinerant beggar.

In our parsha, we see the same thing.  The Tochecha speaks of the unspeakable, and horrifies all that hear it.  After the Tochecha, one might feel that life is just a great and dark abyss of futility, that tranquility and happiness are only a delusion, that human life is brutish and worthless and just long enough to destroy hope.  So the Torah tells us the rules of Arachin.  Every human being is equally precious, no matter who, no matter when.  Never forget that your friend is worth exactly the same as you and as the Kohen Gadol and as the Melech Yisrael.  We are all created be'tzelem Elokim.

Reb Chaim B directs our attention to the Mei Hashiloach, from Rav Mordechai Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rov.  He suggests that Arachin focuses our attention on the redemption of pledges, and says the idea of redemption should be understood more generally.   The Parsha of Arachin following the Tochecha reminds us that there is always an opportunity to redeem onself.   Indeed, other than the introductory passuk of "Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe…" and the ending review passuk, there is an exact match between the thirty-three pesukim of Parshas Arachin and the thirty-three pesukim of the Tochecha.  Sometimes, Tochecha is the trauma that forces a person to realize that he must redeem himself through sincere Teshuva and Ma'asim Tovim.  Sometimes, the punishment itself is the means of attaining redemption.

I particularly like this vort because it is an anodyne for how I felt yesterday as I was being ma'avir sedra.  I noticed that the Eirech of a man between twenty and sixty is fifty (50) shekalim.  The eirech for a man past his sixtieth birthday is fifteen (15) shekalim.  It's not nogei'a to me for another year, but still....put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Which actually sounds like a very good idea.


Chaim B. said...

Ishbitzer has a similar idea. He writes that the theme of arachin is pidyon. It comes after the tochacha to remind us that as bad as the horrors are, there is always the potential for redemption.

Michael Kopinsky said...

"Every human being is equally precious, no matter who, no matter when."

I have trouble accepting that that is the lesson of Arachin. Call me a skeptic, but it seems that taking a system that assigns monetary values to individuals based on their age and gender, and trumpeting that as, "You see, the Torah doesn't discriminate against class, race, or status," or, "Look at how the Torah places unmeasurable value in each individual life," is somewhat disingenuous.

There are answers for arachin, and (I think) I'm not bothered by the fact that we discriminate by age or gender, or assign monetary values to individual souls, but I think you are trumpeting it as something that it's not.

b said...

That's economical. Chaim's Ishbitzer can be used to defuse Michael's problem. The point of Arachin is not to assign value. Ein damim l'ben chorin, and it's entirely different than dami alai. Also, mesadrin for arachin, and not for Dami alai.

I think the point of the scale is to illustrate that every person of a fundamental type has equal potential. We're not interested in our subjective assessment of what he is worth. Hashem gives everyone the ability to do a particular job, and people of certain ages are given more or less responsibilities.