Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Valuing the Individual

Sefer VaYikra ends on a very strange note. The whole book deals with attaining levels of holiness and what to do in cases of impurity.

The penultimate chapter then discusses the tochecha: The rewards Israel would receive should it be worthy and attain those levels of holiness, as well as the detailed terrible consequences Israel would be subjected to, should it fail.

Then suddenly in the final chapter we are told: "When a man expresses a vow, [pledging the] value of lives to the Lord, the [fixed] value of a male shall be as follows: From twenty years old until sixty years old, the value is fifty silver shekels, according to the holy shekel…" (VaYikra 27:2-3).

Essentially, if a person pledges a person to God, he must sacrifice the value of that person. The Torah goes on price humans, dependent upon their sex and age group.

What a strange way to end Sefer VaYikra!! What is going on?

Rabbi Menachem Liebtag suggests that the since Sefer VaYikra, and especially the tochecha, focuses on the holiness of Israel, the Torah then wanted to stress the value of the individual, that one must never forget that while the group is important, each individual is in themselves a whole world.

I would like to offer an alternative suggestion.

Sefer VaYikra discusses how individuals can move closer to God through sacrifice. The ancient world believed that the more valuable the sacrifice, the greater is the offering to God. Therefore, the ultimate sacrifice one could make to God, to show that you truly value Him above all else, was the sacrifice of another person, especially one's children.

Certainly, Avraham had no hesitation offering his son, Yitschak, up to God, and Yiftach (Jephte) also "did to her (his daughter) his vow which he had vowed" (Shoftim 11:39). Solomon also built an altar for Molech, the god of child sacrifice (See I Melachim 11:7). Indeed, one of the reasons that God destroyed the Kingdom of Israel was because they: "they passed their sons and daughters through fire" (II Melachim 17:17). Furthermore, the Prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) berates Yehuda (the Kingdom of Judah) for: "they have built the high places of Topheth which are in the valley of Ben- Hinnom, to burn their sons and daughters with fire, which I did not ordain, neither did it enter My mind (Yirmiahu 7:31).

While we have discussed before whether Molech worship was actually sacrificing the children, or just passing them through fire (see, nevertheless, the fact that the Yirmiyahu, who uses the actual word "burn" says: "which I did not ordain, neither did it enter My mind", implies that many in Israel actually thought that child-sacrifice was what God actually wanted and was the greatest expression of devotion to Him.

The end of this week's parsha, as does the binding of Yitschak, teaches us that in no account does God want any form of human sacrifice. If someone pledges a person, they can only sacrifice the value of that person. Human beings are not, on any account, to be sacrificed to God.

This is a message that the civilized world has now accepted.

Nevertheless, today there are still people willing to sacrifice themselves for their god and the lure of paradise. Therefore, it is totally fitting that VaYikra, the Biblical book that is solely devoted to human holiness, to end on the note that humans are precious and must never be sacrificed to God.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Bechukotai entiled: "Taming the Wild" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Behar entiled: " Jubilee and Freedom" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai entiled: "The Blessing and the Curse" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai entiled: "Shemitta and VaYikra" appears at

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