SALT - Tuesday, 18 Iyar 5780 - May 12, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of
David Moshe ben Harav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l,
whose yahrzeit is Tuesday 18 Iyar, May 12
            Yesterday, we noted the comment of the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 37:2) associating the final section of Sefer Vayikra with Moshe’s efforts to assist Benei Yisrael as they worked as slaves in Egypt.  The final section of Sefer Vayikra deals with “arakhin” – a type of pledge to the Temple treasury whereby one commits to donate the “value” of a certain individual, and the Torah here assigns different amounts for different groups of people, based on age and gender.  The Midrash traces this concept back to the time when Moshe left Pharaoh’s palace, where he was raised, to observe Benei Yisrael’s torment as slaves.  Seeing that the Egyptians had forced older people to perform work suitable for young people, and women to perform work suitable for men, and vice versa, Moshe rearranged the work assignments, so that the people performed the types of labor for which they were better suited.  In reward for these efforts to ease the people’s hardship, the Midrash teaches, God presented the mitzva of arakhin – whereby different value amounts are associated with different kinds of people, just as Moshe recognized that different people were suited for different types of labor.
            To explain the meaning behind this connection, the Imrei Emet (Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter of Ger) suggested that the section of arakhin is presented here, in Parashat Bechukotai, to affirm the value and worth of each and every person.  This section is presented following the tokhecha – the detailed description of the calamities which God threatens to bring upon Benei Yisrael should they violate the covenant.  The Imrei Emet proposed that the section of the tokhecha is followed by the laws of arakhin to remind us that even when God sees fit to punish His nation, we must acknowledge the great worth of each and every one of us.  Even when we fail and are deserving of punishment, we are each valuable and precious.  And herein, the Imrei Emet explains, lies the connection to the story of Moshe assisting Benei Yisrael in Egypt.  His intervention symbolizes the message of arakhin – that even in the darkness of suffering, we must recognize every person’s value and worth.  Even when God punishes, He still cherishes His beloved nation.  This perspective is underscored by Moshe’s efforts to assist the people during their period of bondage, showing that they were worthy of compassion even as God subjected them to suffering.
            The Imrei Emet’s comments bring to mind the Gemara’s famous account in Masekhet Bava Batra (10a) of Rabbi Akiva’s exchange with the Roman governor Turnus Rufus on the subject of charity.  Turnus Rufus posed a theological challenge to the virtue of charity to the poor, wondering why God would want people to feed somebody whom He had condemned to poverty.  If a king’s servant committed a crime for which he was jailed, and the king gave strict orders that the inmate may not be fed, then certainly, Turnus Rufus argued, nobody would dare violate the order and feed the convict.  Why, then, does the Torah require us to feed those whom God has sentenced to hunger?
            Rabbi Akiva replied that the situation is different if the prisoner is the king’s own son.  If the prince angered the king, and the king sentenced the prince to jail and ordered his subjects not to feed him, the king would nevertheless be overjoyed if his edict is violated and his son is fed.  Rabbi Akiva told Turnus Rufus that as God considers Benei Yisrael His beloved children, He wants us to feed and care for even those whom He has, for reasons we do not know, condemned to deprivation.
            God’s warnings in the tokhecha are exceedingly harsh, and He goes so far as to proclaim, “ve-ga’ala nafshi etkhem” – “I shall be revolted by you” (26:30).  The Imrei Emet’s insight suggests that we qualify even this drastic pronouncement, and remember that we are cherished by God even when He deals with us harshly.  Under all circumstances, each member of our nation is the King’s prince, and not simply His servant, whom He continues to love and care for, and whom He wants us to continue loving and caring for, as well.