Charles P. Sherman
Four examples of a vulgar expression which contradicts and undermines a core Jewish value – the dignity and sanctity of every human live.
A Price Tag on Human Life?
I am offended by an offensive statement which I’ve encountered three different times in three different places. It’s a vulgar expression which articulates a totally un-Jewish value.
You may be surprised, therefore, that the first time I encountered this statement was in Bereshit, the Book of Genesis. It appears in a story which took place in the land of Israel at the very beginning of our history. The second time I found it was in the Megillah that we shall read this Sunday morning; it appears near the climax of the story. And the third time I found it was in a report of a committee meeting which took place in California about a year and a half ago. Each time I saw that expressionsomething within me shivered, for I believe it is one of the most tasteless expressions I’ve ever heard. I fear for what will happen to this world if this expression takes hold and is used more often.
So the first time I found this statement is in the story of Joseph and his brothers. You remember the scene – Joseph goes looking for his brothers and they see him coming from afar. He is wearing his coat of many colors, the garment that his father made for him which sets him apart from his brothers, and is a sign that his father loves him more than he loves them.
The brothers see that coat and go ballistic; it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull. So they grab him, beat him up, strip him of that coat of many colors, and throw Joseph into a pit. They intend to let him die in the pit, but a caravan of Ishmaelites goes by on their way to Egypt.
When Judah sees this caravan, he gets an idea. Why should they kill their brother and bear guilt for his death for the rest of their lives? There is an easier way to get rid of him – let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites instead. Let them take him down to Egypt, and we will be rid of this trouble-maker forever. Good idea.
But Judah has to sell the idea to his brothers. How should he do it? How shall he persuade his brothers that selling Joseph is a better plan than killing him? He says to them: “Ma betsah – what benefit will we have, what will we gain, if we kill him? If we sell him, we will at least make some profit from the sale. But if we kill him, ma betsah – what will we gain?”
Those words ought to make us all shiver. Ma betsah – is this the way for human beings to talk about a brother, as if he were a piece of goods that they were willing to sell for a profit? Judah probably meant well. He probably meant to save his brother’s life. He probably thought that they were too upset to listen to any other argument, so he tried this one. But still, how can you talk about any human being – much less a brother – this way? How can you say “let’s not kill him because, if we do, what profit will we make by doing so?”
It may have been the only way Judah felt he could persuade his brothers, but still, even so – how can you talk this way? How can you argue about saving a human being’s life in terms of whether it pays financially or not? Isn’t that a horribly callous way to discuss the life of a human created in the image of God?
Now, let’s look together at the Purim story. Again, you know the basic facts. Haman has persuaded King Ahasuerus to let him destroy all the Jews. Finally, finally, Esther reveals her identity to the King and tries to persuade him to save her life and the lives of her people. So listen to what Esther says.
“If Your Majesty will do me a favor, if it please Your Majesty, will you please grant me my life and grant my people their lives as my request? For we have been sold – my people and I – to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as slaves, I would have kept quiet, for the matter would not have been worthy of the King’s trouble.”
You understand what Esther is saying here? If my people and I were going to be sold into slavery, I wouldn’t bother you with such a trivial matter. But, since we are being condemned to death, I must ask you for a favor – would you please let us live.
If we were being sold as slaves, then you would have made some money on the deal. You would have some profit from our plight and, therefore, I wouldn’t bother you. How could Esther have spoken this way?
Perhaps it was because she had no power. Therefore she had to beg, and so she spoke to the King in the only language she thought he could understand – the language of profit or loss. But still, even if that was why she spoke this way, I’m disturbed and I hope you are too.
Do you see the similarity between what Esther says here when she was trying to save her people and what Judah said when he was trying to persuade his brothers to sell Joseph instead of killing him? In both cases they make their argument not in moral terms, but in financial terms. “If we sell our brother, we will make some profit.” “If we were being sold for money, I would not bother you.”
Why didn’t Judah say straight out – “you can’t kill a human being”? “You can’t murder a brother. It’s wrong.” And why does Esther not say to the King – “you can’t allow a whole people to be wiped out when they’ve done nothing wrong. You can’t permit human beings to be murdered, because it’s immoral to do such a thing.” Why did Judah and Esther both phrase their efforts to save lives in such crass, materialistic ways? Why did they both say “it does not pay to do this” instead of saying “it is wrong to do this”?
I don’t know. But recently we witnessed this same kind of argument. It was used by people whom I imagine are probably nice people, probably moral people. Therefore, I was shocked to hear this kind of an argument repeated once again. These were the circumstances.
Dr. Aryeh Cohen, who is a Professor of Talmud at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, is a supporter of many liberal causes. One of the causes which he cares deeply about is the abolition of the death penalty. So Dr. Cohen tells the story of how he went to a meeting of a group of people who oppose capital punishment. This group was trying to get a proposition on the ballot in California which would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without any possibility of parole. Everybody in the room was against the death penalty. The only item for discussion was what strategy should they use in order to convince others to vote for this proposition.
Someone came up with an idea. Let’s educate them that it costs less to keep a person in prison for life than it does to execute them. You see, if you put a person on death row, the state has to bear the costs of his appeals, pay for his attorneys, provide enhanced security on death row. Then the state has to train special people to carry out the execution, and finally the state has to cope with the demonstrations of protestors which always occur. The result is that putting a prisoner to death costs much more than life imprisonment. In fact, a panel of judges studied the matter and found that the additional costs in capital punishment cases are considerable. So if we tell the people this, maybe they will vote our way. No death penalty; just keep the person in prison for the rest of his life. It is a more prudent use of our tax dollars.
Dr. Cohen says that as he was sitting, listening to this argument, he felt himself getting ready to throw-up. Rightly so, I think. You may be against capital punishment – if so, that is your privilege. You may be for capital punishment – also, your privilege. That is not the issue I’m addressing tonight. What I am saying is that there ought be a more moral way of winning the argument on this issue than by claiming that it is too expensive or less expensive.
Why can’t this committee make its case not on the grounds that it will save money, but on the grounds that sometimes people are executed and afterwards we find out that they were innocent. Or the grounds that the state should not take away human life? Why does this committee think that the most effective way to garner votes for this proposition is that it will save money? Is that not a insult to the intelligence of the voters of California, to believe that they will decide how to vote on this critical issue largely in terms of whether it costs money or saves money?
So as long as I’m telling you what has me upset, let me give you one more – much closer to home. Whether it is Federation, RHCC, Temple or some other cause, when we’re strategizing a fund raising campaign and going over names of potential donors, someone says: you know, so-and-so is worth $10 million – I find that to be an obscene expression. To whom is a person worth $10 million? To his wife? To his parents? To his children? I believe he is worth much more than that. Therefore, no one should ever put a price tag like that on a human being. If you want to say so-and-so has at least $10 million, that’s alright. But let’s not say that so-and-so is worth $10 million. That degrades the infinite worth of a human being, and we should never use such a crass expression.
So why do I give you these four examples? One in Genesis, one in the Megillat Esther, one in California, and then the local fund raisers. Why have I gone so far as to call words – in each case said by good people – vulgar, crass, distasteful, offensive?
Because I believe that a central teaching of Judaism is that life – every life, with no exception – is of infinite value. And therefore, whether it should be taken or not should be decided by other criteria. By whether the person has forfeited the right to live, or by whether capital punishment will deter others from killing. Or by whatever criteria – pro or con – you wish to have. But it should never be decided in terms of ma betsah – in terms of profit or loss.
I feel for poor Judah, really I do, who tried his best to save Joseph’s life even though – in order to do so – he felt he had to use the language of the marketplace. And I feel for poor Esther, who felt that in order to persuade the king she had to use the language of economics. And I feel for members of the California committee who wanted to assert the preciousness of life, but who ended up doing so in a way that desecrates human life. And I understand the strategy of fund-raising, which places a monetary value on people.
But I tell you about these incidents today as a warning. If our society is to remain civilized, we need to be careful to revere all human life. We need to remember that all human beings are made in the image of God. And we need to understand that human beings are never to be judged by the cost of keeping them alive or by the cost of letting them go – not in the hospital, not in the courtroom, and not anywhere else – for every human being is made in the image of God and, therefore, whoever saves one human life it is as if he has saved a whole world. And whoever destroys one human life, it is as if he has destroyed a whole world. Therefore we should never say of anyone – ma betsah – what profit will we have if we save him or if we destroy him?
Take your stand on whichever side you wish – that is your right – but let’s not argue our case on either side in terms of cost. For, if we do, we will lose the sense of the preciousness and dignity of human life which is at the very core of civilized living – and that would be a great loss.
May God grant us the strength to affirm the sanctity of life by the words we use now and always. Amen
This message is based on the writings of Rabbi Jack Riemer to whom I am humbly grateful.