At one of the שבע ברכות, Gershon’s brother Aden talked about the well-known Trolley Problem: how much is a single human being worth? This week’s parsha makes that explicit: 50 shekels (adjusting for age and sex):
That’s $353.98 (on May 24, 2022). That was easy!
Now, ספר ויקרא ought to end on a dramatic note:
Back then, I looked at some approaches to the problem. Now I
would like to explore another way of looking at it, from Rav Itamar Eldar’s article in Torah MiEtzion: Vayikra.
The Netziv points out that the idea of a “voluntary” מצוה is very strange:
And Hirsch says that this is why these laws are only an appendix to the ספר:
Rav Eldar points out that in the sorts of situations that we feel the need to sacrifice, when we are praying “מן המעמקים”, we offer to give up the thing that is most valuable to us. But that which is really most valuable to us is not our cows and sheep, our possessions, but ourselves and our loved ones. The “natural” expression of sacrifice is human sacrifice:
But ה׳ tells us that human beings have value, and cannot be sacrificed for our religious needs. ערכין is the mechanism for sublimating that urge, which existed throughout history:
The example of מישע מלך מואב is striking: his child sacrifice so shocks his enemies that they immediately retreat:
And Phyllis Shapiro mentioned a classical Greek source of the same idea:
It is at the akedah that ה׳ unambiguously rejects human sacrifice. The story still bothers us, because Avraham initially doesn’t protest. We feel that human sacrifice is obviously, inherently, immoral. How could he even think that ה׳ wanted him to do such a thing?
But Alex is wrong. The fact is that through most of human history, killing children was a normal thing. We feel it is immoral, but that is because the lesson of the akedah is so ingrained in us and our society. When faced with the need for sacrifice, we have to substitute:
And the parasha ends with a law that provides a striking contrast:
Animals are to be offered. If the are קדוש, they cannot be exchanged. Human beings must be exchanged, because every individual has their own infinite inherent value.
Several ספרים of תנ״ך have “appendices”, chapters at the end that are clearly out of context. This is one example of that. I haven’t seen any sources that discuss why ה׳ should organize the book that way, but I can hypothesize. Every ספר נבואה has a message, a מוסר השכל, that is the theme of the ספר. But that moral is not explicitly stated; it is implied in the text as a whole. There is a danger, therefore, that we will draw the wrong conclusion. In ספר ויקרא, we may look at Moshe’s words on the death of נדב and אביהו:
And we may feel that ה׳ wants us to give up our lives for Him. But our appendix reminds us that ה׳ really wants us to dedicate our lives for Him:
And the 50 shekel ערך is just the financial value of an offering. The fact that it seems so low emphasizes that it in no way represents the true ערך נפש of a person. There is no way to put a price on an actual human being.
That might (if I can be so arrogant) answer Rashi’s question:
עֶרְכְּךָ is clearly used as a noun, but maybe there’s a hint to it meaning הָעֵרֶךְ שֶׁלְךָ, ”this is the appraisal for you, when you want to offer a sacrifice“. For Me, ה׳ says, every human being has infinite worth. That is the lesson of the פרק of ערכין.