In the sidra or section of the Tora that Jewish communities read this past week, Behuqotai, we find a curious description of an offering. Now, at the end of the book of Vayiqra (Leviticus) it should be no surprise at all that the text is discussing sacrifices, offerings, and other Temple business. However, there’s something special about this particular offering, called an Erekh.
Vayiqra 27:2-7 gives us a good introduction to the subject of Erekh:
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, If anyone makes a special vow to the Lord involving the valuation of persons, 3 then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. 4 If the person is a female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels. 5 If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, the valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels. 6 If the person is from a month old up to five years old, the valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female the valuation shall be three shekels of silver. 7 And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the valuation for a male shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels.” [ESV]
Several odd things should stand out to us here – what is the ‘valuations of persons’ (arkei nefashot)? Why is there such a difference between male and female or between young, younger, and old?
To treat the second part first, the question of the varying values applied to different combinations of age and gender, we can learn from this not only value in the monetary sense, but also in the cultural sense. It’s clear from this that in the biblical worldview, there is a hierarchy of human value – roughly going as follows:
1. Male, Age 20-60 (50 Sheqels)
2. Female, Age 20-60 (30 Sheqels)
3. Male, Age 5-20 (20 Sheqels)
4. Male, Age 60+ (15 Sheqels)
5. Female, Age 5-20 (10 Sheqels)
6. Male, Age 1mo-5 (5 Sheqels)
7. Female, Age 1mo-5 (3 Sheqels)
These are the arekhim, the values assigned to different people if they ‘make a vow to the Lord.’ What is behind this table of values? It seems that the underlying concept is one of physical labor – your value corresponds to your ability to work – thus men are valued higher than women, but adult women are still valued higher than boys or old men. Perhaps that’s the underlying rationale, perhaps it’s something else.
Regardless of the particulars that underlie the particular values of arakhim – the bigger question remains: what does it mean to vow the ‘value of a soul?’ How do we evaluate a soul and what can we learn from this odd sacrificial ritual?
The message, I believe, is that there are offerings that go beyond the qorbanot (sacrifices) typically seen in Vayiqra – slain animals, meal offerings, pigeons and doves, calves and lambs. In addition to all those things we are required to give, we are also required to give something far more fundamental and far more difficult – ourselves.
The Tora here is teaching us that there is value not only in the things that we have but even in our deepest essence. It asks that we place a price tag on ourselves and, symbolically, offer up that value to the greater good. We must give of ourselves even when the only thing we have to give is the deepest core of our being. God doesn’t only request of us our possessions, our first fruits and our turtledoves and our tithes – God also asks that we put ourselves on the line, that we attribute a value to our souls and make a vow to sacrifice that value.
Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “Sacrifice is not destruction. Sacrifice is the foundation stone of what is yet to be.” The offering of Erekh that we see in this section of Vayiqra is definitely the best example of what sacrifice can and perhaps should be. Nothing is destroyed, no blood is spilled, no creatures harmed. Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we can give is ourselves, to place a value on our souls and then to contribute it, wholeheartedly, and with the intention that our self-(e)valuation may become the first flowering of a new and better world.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.