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What's it Worth to You?

05/11/2023 04:39:09 PM


How do we value people? The fact that we are created in the image of God should mean that every person has infinite value and there is no way to compare one human being to another. In reality, we do have to offer evaluations and comparisons. Personal injury attorneys ask juries to put a price on people’s very lives. Anyone who has ever had to hire someone for a job or choose a mate (hopefully not in the same decision process) has had to choose one candidate to at the expense of others. The question of how we value people in community life can sometimes be a particularly thorny one. Our portion suggests one way to understand a person’s value, but our tradition expands to consider many others.


On a fundamental level, every member of the community has infinite value because each one is unique and irreplaceable.  And yet, there are times when one member must be chosen over another. When the congregation chooses Board members (as we are doing this evening), it is based on their talent and their willingness to apply that talent for the betterment of our community. In other cases, like who will receive an honor in the service, it can be less clear-cut. It is well known that specific honors are reserved for Cohanim, Levites and sages. Beyond that, Ashkenazi sources give a hierarchy based on lifecycle events- Bar Mitzvah, yahrzeit, new child or grandchild, aufruf, etc. Some Sephardim will straight up auction off honors to the highest bidder.


What is the “right” way?  This week we read the last portions of Leviticus, called Behar-Behukotai, which suggests one approach. Chapter 27 says that, if a person offers to make a donation to the Temple equal to the “value” of some other person, there is a concrete criterion of anywhere from 3 to 50 “holy shekels,” with the specific amount dependent on age and gender and, by extension, the ritual roles that they are able to fulfill. The Talmudic tractate Arachin suggests that this is just one dimension.  Instead one might choose to pledge an amount to someone’s “work worth”- how much could be garnered if a person of those skills and abilities were to be sold as a slave. Alternatively, one might also make a pledge equal to the “net worth” of another person, based on their wealth.


None of those modes of evaluation is in regular use today, but they actually provide a helpful structure to think about how we value different types of participation in our own community. I like to express the talmudic options in terms of three “D”s.  Someone may be a “Davener. ” They could contribute to the community through the “holy shekel,” by virtue of  their ritual participation- helping make a minyan or lead services.  Someone else might be a “Doer” as they contribute through their “work worth”- as a lay volunteer, leading or serving on a committee.  And, of course, one might be a “Donor,” contributing financially.


It is impossible to compare the relative values of these different types of contributions, the “Daveners,” “Doers,” and “Donors.” One person who serves on our chevra kaddisha, another who makes a generous annual gift, a third person who helps make an activity a success, each adds something distinctive and irreplaceable to the congregation. There is no math to compare someone who pledges a bequest to the synagogue to someone who is tenth for  a minyan or helps pack with Backpack Buddies. For as long as I have been at B’nai Torah, our High Holiday honors committee has ensured that people in each of those categories are recognized.  If someone received an Aliyah to the Torah on the High Holidays, they might have made a financial contribution, but it was just as likely that they were a minyan maker or regular participant in services, had been an extremely active volunteer, or had a yahrzeit that day.


At B’nai Torah, we value all levels of involvement from our congregants and we work to ensure that everyone can find a way (or multiple ways) to participate meaningfully. We are thankful to all of our engaged members, whether that is through being a “Davener,” a “Doer” or a “Donor” (or more than one), and we always work to recognize our members for all that they do for our community. That isn’t changing.


For as long as I can remember, B’nai Torah has been committed to recognizing multiple ways one can contribute to the life of our community.  Recently our Board, chosen by our community, sent out information stating explicitly the ways in which those who donate are recognized. That does not change the fact that “Doers” and “Daveners” continue to be just as valued and are recognized in important ways as well. 


As we finish the book of Leviticus, it bears remembering that “hakarat hatov” - expressing gratitude - is an important Jewish value. It is great whenever we can remind people of the thanks that we offer. It is also just as important to note that, while we say thank you to people for all the ways that they make a difference and that their contributions make it possible for our community to be what it is, each person also has an innate, even infinite value for who they are, irrespective of what they give or do. 

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784