How Much Is a Life Worth?

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By Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

Parshat Behar-BeChukotai

Did you ever wonder what your life is worth?

The U.S. government and its agencies do ask, “What is the value of a human life?” And, our Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, answers it — but!

Two back stories:

First, we know that although not all government standards are enacted on “cost-benefit analysis,” even a safety regulation has a much better chance of becoming law if it does. Our federal agencies today use the studies of Richard Thaler, the 2017 economics Nobel Prize-winner, as the most common way of estimating the Value of Statistical Life. He calculated that each VSL is $1.5 million in 2017 dollars.

Each of us has a VSL worth today of $10 million according to the Office of Management and Budget. That is what each of us is worth when calculating government protection of our lives, for requiring seat belts, for vaccination against smallpox or measles and even a pandemic.

Secondly, the Torah outlines a precise scale of valuing each human life in our Torah portion, Behar-BeChukotai. It is pronounced to protect a Jew against taking a rash vow. One of the classic examples is in the Book of Judges, where Yiftach impulsively vows, “If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return shall be the Lords and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering, (Judges 11:30).” Midrash varies on how that vow was fulfilled or could have been annulled.

And, our Sedrah provides clearly for a monetary redemption of such a promise to God in return for victory in battle.

Our Torah reading, “When a person explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent of a human being, the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from 20 to 60 years of age, the equivalent is 50 shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if a female, the equivalent is 30 shekels. If the age is from 5 to 20 years, the equivalent is 20 shekels for a male and 10 for a female …” (Lev: 27:1-8)

While reviewing this Torah reading, several questions were raised by this evaluation of an ancient VSL.

How can we find this Torah teaching meaningful, especially today defining value by age and gender in shekels? We can find spiritual significance knowing that this scale of “human value” only applied to a unique circumstance, namely the impulsive impetuous turning to God for an immediate divine solution.

Our sages understood human worrying in the face of a serious challenge. An entire tractate of the Talmud, “Nedarim,” was dedicated to ritual and legal resolution for impetuous vows, for a way for each of us to find our way to atone later. They knew that in their lives how “contemporary” it was to feel like Biblical figures in the face of overwhelming inadequacy to deal confront approaching war, drought, famine and/or disease — and “cry out to God for relief.”

What they read in the Torah, the Tanakh, later rabbinic commentaries and debates describe in their lives what were similar Biblical moments of anxiety that could prompt someone to make a rash promise to God if only they and their loves ones could survive. And, honestly, from the Torah to us today, their admission that we occasionally are tempted to reach for a miraculous solution, to “cry out to God for divine protection.

Ibn Ezra, a medieval Torah commentator, states, “It is customary for one to vow that if God fulfills their request, an offering will be given to the Temple according to the valuation of his life or his child or his livestock. Through the Second Temple period individuals could “vow” (a sacred pledge or promise to God) when they faced danger. In fear for their life or facing some disaster, it was common to voluntarily pledge “their life” to the Temple; what amount should be donated in lieu of actually sacrificing their life?

We are suffering today with our continuing two-fold challenge: (1) What is each of us worth in terms of shared investment and social policy, in government energy and effort? (2) How can we resolve our anxiety and apprehension constructively, to face modern challenges, by turning to each other in world cooperation to find solutions in shared science, cooperative economies and protection of our planet?

To paraphrase Solomon Schechter, z”l, the founder and first president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “First, let us we do for ourselves all that is humanly possible; only then do we turn to God for salvation.”

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner is the editor and president of JewishFreeware.org and president and rav hamakhshir of Traditional Kosher Supervision LLC. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

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