Friday, May 18, 2012

On The Value of a Soul

דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, אִישׁ, כִּי יַפְלִא נֶדֶר--בְּעֶרְכְּךָ נְפָשֹׁת, לַהי

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to The Lord the equivalent for a human being...” Leviticus 27:2

This Shabbat, we come to the end of Sefer VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus.  In Parashat Behar, the penultimate parashah, we learn the obligations of the seven-year agricultural cycle and the JubileeYear that comes at the end of seven cycles of seven years. Bekhukotai, the ultimate parashah of Vayikra, presents us with a detailed picture of the rewards for observing the mitzvot and following God’s ways, as well as the consequences for failure to so do, all of which are presented in great and terrifying detail.  The message is clearly conveyed.  The end of the parashah raises the complex question of how to determine the financial value of a vow that is the equivalent of a human being or soul.  Following the reading of the final verse of the Book, we cry out together:

חזק חזק ונתחזק!

Be Strong, Be Strong and together we will be Strengthened!

At first glance, the question of determining value for fulfillment of vows based on a promise of the equivalent of a human being is simple. After all, chapter 27 of Sefer Vayikra provides a detailed list of valuations for human beings based on age, gender and other factors.  The answer appears to be clear cut but, as is the case with virtually everything in Torah, such is not the case.  Valuation is so complex that it develops into its own field of actuarial science.  How to determine the financial value or equivalent of a vow on anything, be it a human life, an animal, etc is so complicated that an entire section of the Mishnah and Gemarah, Masekhet Arachin, is dedicated to the topic. This is such a crucial question because the person who makes the vow is not just trying to fulfill any promise; rather, they are fulfilling a promise to God. The consequences for making a mistake or undervaluing the amount of the promise are nothing short of cosmic.

One might think this is an irrelevant question as neither the portable Tabernacle nor the Temple in Jerusalem are in existence today.  We know, however, that the question of how we fulfill promises, whether they are to another person or to God, as well as how we determine the value of human life, is just as relevant today as it was in the time of our ancient ancestors.  When we look at another person, how do we see them?   How do we determine their inherent value?  How do we determine our own value?  These are questions we struggle with every single day, in every human encounter, from the person we physically bump into while walking somewhere to the strengths and weaknesses we see in the depths of our own souls.

Chapter 27 of Leviticus provides us with both a challenge and a method for understanding human value. The challenge to our modern sensitivities and values grows from the fact that Torah does assess different financial values to categories of people precisely in those areas of difference where today's societal values demand complete equality.  There is no question that multiple valuations are problematic at best.  That, however, is the topic of a future d'var Torah.  At this moment, what I find interesting is the overarching value we can learn even from the fact that the financial valuations are based on some sort of hierarchy.  Given that in each class, there is complete equality between the values of souls, we can extrapolate the principle that all souls are intrinsically valuable.  We can look at the text and, in classic rabbinic fashion, learn the general rule and then place the differences into historical context.  That is, our values are different today.  We value every human on an equal basis or at least we strive to achieve such equality.  It is fair to say that both here and across the world, we have not yet achieved that goal.  Yet, we continue to work toward it.

On the personal level, we are often challenged to recognize our own intrinsic value.  Do we value ourselves too high?  Too low?  Not at all?  The potential character threats in any of these approaches are clear: from ego and hubris to depression to self-harm.  Finding healthy self-value is as crucial as it is challenging.  Often times, the ability to accurately perceive self-worth does emerge from within the sovereign self. At other times, the ability to accurately estimate self-value evolves from interactions with others, it emerges from conversation and interaction with other souls.  When we receive gifts from unexpected places, other souls, that potentially lead to greater self-valuation and understanding, to accepting what is truly the human inheritance, the Babylonian Talmud, in the section known as Ketubot, teaches that we do have the opportunity to reject those inheritances, to refuse them as ways to achieve greater self-understanding and self-respect:

דאמר רב כהנא נחלה הבאה לאדם ממקום אחר אדם מתנה עליה שלא יירשנה

For Rav Kahana said: An inheritance that comes to a person from a different place, a person can make a condition that he will not inherit it...   (כתובות פ”ג ע”א)

Yet, when we do accept such gifts, especially when they come from unexpected times or sources, they can lead to the lifting of burdens, to opening windows into the soul, to greater self-understanding, to creating space to be fully one’s self.  If you have ever experienced such gifts, you know that you discover, with clarity and understanding, that your own soul is as precious and valuable as all other souls.  What is equally remarkable is that the sender of such a gift may never even know the impact that they had in your discovery, they may never know that they sent you the gift in the first place.

At Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, from the kitchen staff to the cabin counselors, from the roshei aidah to the heads of maintenance and housekeeping, from the newest to the most veteran campers, we recognize the inherent and equal value in each individual person.  Every camper and staff member, each soul, is precious and a reflection of The Divine in this world.  The different ways in which we connect to each soul, the variety of ways that we convey our understanding of the equal and inherent value of each soul may vary but one of our ultimate goals is that every member of the Ramah community feel that recognition.  Like the rest of the world, we may have room to strengthen the ways that we convey that message to each person but the value itself is inherent in all that is Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

In just a over a week-and-a-half, our first group of shlichim - the camping staff - as well as our commissary staff and the senior leadership team of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin will arrive at our summer home.  We will wind down the road to the front gate of camp.  We will catch the first glimpse of beautiful Lake Buckatabon.  From the very outset,  even the senior year-round leadership will be meeting people for the first time. While we will all start with the knowledge of the equal valuation of every soul, we will also dedicate ourselves to discovering the uniqueness of each individual.  The following week, the rest of the staff will arive at camp and we will repeat the process, all in the spirit of modeling what needs to happen the following week, when your children get off the buses.  When this process, all three levels - senior leadership, staff and campers, is complete, we will have built our community and initiated the process of transformation Jewish lives.  At that point, we will once again cry out together

חזק חזק ונתחזק!

Be Strong, Be Strong and together we will be Strengthened!

Shabbat Shalom!

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