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.
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.