How much is a human being worth?
In the Torah reading of this week, the value of a person is pledged to the temple in terms of a scale measured in money. Now, obviously the Torah does not mean that we are to judge a human being’s value this way. The worth of a human being is inestimable, and no two people are the same. Their value will be dependent upon circumstances and their life experiences. Nevertheless, by establishing such a scale of values, the Torah is teaching us that people are to be estimated in a practical value way. This is a unique idea.
In the ancient world when slavery was very prevalent, even in our day where slavery still exists in parts of the world, the value of a person is their worth on the slave market. How much work can they do? How old are they? What are their talents? All of this contributes to a monetary value and the Torah allows us to look at people in that way as well.
When an employer hires an employee and sets a salary for that employee’s services, he is estimating what the worth of that person is to the success and profits of the enterprise of the employer. This is part of the psyche of human beings. It is the way that we look at people; how much is he worth? And we are aware of the fact, that because of this scale of values, some people are worth more than others, at least in monetary terms, or in terms of benefit to those who are estimating this type of value.
The poor Hungarian refugee who came to America in 1938 – 39, but who was an expert in nuclear energy and would help produce the atomic bomb, was certainly worth more than a fellow refugee who would, let us say, open up a dry goods store in Brooklyn. Since this system of estimating value is really a cruel one, the Torah accepts values that are not dependent upon these variant talents or needs but rather on set amounts.
It is a constant human drive to try and make ourselves more valuable to others. We do so to increase our salaries, to gain wealth, power, favor, or position. Because of this, the idea of the value of a person is always paramount in our minds and eyes. We are forced to realize that every human being has value and that one really cannot estimate this correctly. The Torah, by setting an amount, is telling you that the atomic scientist and the dry goods manager, are, so to speak, of the same value, because no human being’s value can really be estimated correctly in terms of money and in terms of position. Realizing this, we find that the Torah is classless, it does not reflect elitism or the designation of people of special value because these people are unknown to us. Heaven knows who a prophet is and who is going to be the leader.
The rabbis said, quoting the Bible, that the hearts of kings and leaders are really given over into the hands of Heaven. They are not the ones of value, they are the instruments by which value is transmitted to a people, to a nation, or to a society.
These are important ideas in our time when the value of people is certainly brought home to us. The fact that we cannot socialize, we cannot deal with people as we do in normal times, only serves to emphasize to us how valuable people are and what every person can contribute to society and to the welfare of others. I think that this image has great bearing for our time and for our current situation.
Rabbi Berel Wein