A Human Life is Irreplaceable

The son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man.

And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. They brought him to Moshe. His mother's name was Shelomit the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.  They placed him in the guardhouse, [until his sentence would] be specified to them by the word of Hashem.  (Sefer VaYikra 24:10-12)

The blasphemer and ensuing dilemma

These passages introduce the closing section of Parshat Emor.  A quarrel develops among the people.  One of the participants pronounces the name of Hashem and curses it.  This is an act of blasphemy.  The people understand that a serious sin had been committed.  However, they do not know how to respond.  They bring the blasphemer to Moshe.

Moshe does not know how this person should be treated.  Hashem has not revealed to him the consequence for such an act of blasphemy.  Moshe places the sinner under guard and seeks Hashem’s guidance.


And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying:  Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him.  And to the children of Israel, you shall speak, saying: Any man who blasphemes his L-rd shall bear his sin.  And one who blasphemously pronounces the Name of Hashem, shall be put to death; the entire community shall stone him; convert and resident alike if he pronounces the [Divine] Name, he shall be put to death.  And if a man strikes down any human being, he shall be put to death.  (Sefer VaYikra 24:13-17)


Hashem responds to Moshe

Moshe receives a response from Hashem. The blasphemer should be stoned.  However, in addition to responding to Moshe’s question, Hashem reveals the consequence for taking a life.  One who kills another, is punished with death.  Why does Hashem – at this moment – explain to Moshe the consequence for taking a life?  Moshe seeks guidance regarding the blasphemer.  What is the relevance of murder to the punishment of the blasphemer?


And one who slays an animal shall pay for it [the value of] a life for the life [he took].  And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.  And one who injures an animal shall pay for it. And one who strikes a person shall be put to death.  (Sefer VaYikra 24:18-21)


Laws regarding damages are revealed

After answering Moshe’s question regarding the blasphemer and revealing the punishment for taking a life, Hashem appends two other laws. One who kills an animal must make restitution to its owner.  One who injures another person shall have the same damage inflicted upon him.  These two issues are completely unrelated to the question posed by Moshe.  Moshe and Bnai Yisrael asked how they should respond to the blasphemer.  Hashem responded and also revealed the consequence for murder.  The reason for revealing the punishment of the murder at this specific juncture is not obvious.  However, there is some connection between the blasphemer and the murderer.  Like the blasphemer, the murderer is punished with death.  Laws of damages are completely unrelated to Moshe’s inquiry regarding the blasphemer.  Why did Hashem reveal these laws at this time?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l proposes an insight into this section of the parasha that explains the connection between its component laws.  He begins by suggesting that Hashem’s response to Moshe communicated that there is an equation between blasphemy and murder.  This equation is the reason that the murderer forfeits his own life.  What is the connection between blasphemy and murder?  How can these sins be compared?  Rav Soloveitchik explains that in order to answer this question, we must carefully consider an earlier passage in the Torah.


Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of the L-rd He made man.  (Sefer Beresheit 9:6)


The human being embodies the Divine image

In the above passage, Hashem addresses Noach.  He reveals to him basic laws that apply to all humanity.  One of these is the prohibition against taking another’s life.  Hashem explains that the consequence for taking a life is the forfeiture of the murderer’s life.  Hashem adds that this consequence is appropriate because every human being is fashioned in the form of his Creator.  How does this explain the punishment of the murderer?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the murderer is not put to death for taking a life.  One who kills an animal also takes a life. Yet, one is not executed for killing an animal. Instead, the murderer is punished with death because he has taken a life created in the Divine image.  The Divine image embodied in the human being endows every person with a capacity for distinction – the potential to develop into a unique, meaningful individual.  When one takes a life, something distinct and irreplaceable has been destroyed.[1]  The severity of the sin lies in the extinguishing of a unique and irreplaceable life.

Based on this analysis, Rav Soloveitchik proceeds to explain why Hashem, here, instructed Moshe that one who kills an animal must compensate the owner.  Hashem was contrasting human life with the animal life.  An animal can be replaced.  It is not endowed with the Divine image and cannot acquire true and meaningful uniqueness.  One who takes this life has not destroyed an irreplaceable existence. Another animal can replace it.  Therefore, he makes restitution to the owner of the animal.  The murderer cannot redress his crime by making restitution.  He has destroyed a life that is unique and cannot be replaced.


Human justice is not perfect

Let us now consider the last law Hashem, here, revealed to Moshe.  One who damages another’s person is subjected to the same damage to his person.  Why does Hashem mention this?

Rav Soloveitchik begins make making a basic observation about this law.  The passage states that we inflict upon a person the damage that he has inflicted upon another.  Does this mean that if one blinds another, he is blinded?  The Oral Tradition teaches that this is not the intent of the passage.  One who causes such damage to another must provide monetary compensation.  The phrase “eye for eye” means that the amount of compensation is not fixed.  Instead, it corresponds to the extent of the damage.  The greater the damage associated with the injury, the greater the required compensation.  For example, the compensation for blinding someone will differ from the compensation for causing a person to lose a finger.

If the passage requires that one compensate the victim, then why does it not express itself more clearly?  Why does it not say that the person who causes the harm should pay the victim?  Rabbeinu Avraham Ibn Ezra and others address this issue.  They explain that, indeed, in a system of perfect justice, the one who takes an eye would forfeit his own.  We cannot administer perfect justice and we settle for an approximation – monetary compensation.[2]

What prevents us from applying absolute, perfect justice?  Consider a person who blinded someone with poor eyesight.  Were we to blind the offender, then the punishment would not be proportionate to the crime – in the sense of “eye of eye”.  The eye forfeited by the offender would not be the equivalent of the eye he had blinded.  We cannot administer perfect justice.  Instead, we are directed to settle for requiring that the damaged party receive appropriate monetary compensation.[3]  The passage’s phrasing preserves the description of perfect justice – one who takes an eye should forfeit his own eye. By retaining this language the passage pointedly communicates that in a system of perfect justice the taking of an eye would be punished by the forfeiture of an eye.[4]

Why does one who blinds another deserve to lose his own eyesight?  Rav Soloveitchik explains that the ideal consequence is another expression of the uniqueness of the human being which is derived from being created in Hashem’s image.  If a human being is no more than an organic creature, then damage to the organism can be quantified and monetarized.  Compensation for damage would not be approximate justice; it would be completely appropriate.  However, according to the Torah, one who damages another deserves to have the same damage inflicted upon him.  What is the justification for this severe consequence?  It is that one has diminished an individual who embodies the Divine image.  When one deprives another of a limb or causes similar damage, he impacts the victim’s quality of life.  This unique individual who is a manifestation of the image of Hashem has been diminished.  This is the basis of the crime’s severity.  For this reason, in a system of perfect justice, the person deserves to have the same harm inflicted upon him.


If a man commits a sin for which he is sentenced to death, and he is put to death, you shall [then] hang him on a pole.  But you shall not leave his body on the pole overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that [same] day, for a hanging [human corpse] is a blasphemy of the L-rd, and you shall not defile your land, which Hashem, your L-rd, is giving you as an inheritance.  (Sefer Devarim 21:22-23)


Murder is an act of blasphemy

To this point, Rav Soloveitchik has explained that the equation between blasphemy and murder teaches that the Divine image endows every human being with the capacity to achieve distinction and unique significance.  Rav Soloveitchik suggests that there is an additional element in the equation between the blasphemer and the murderer. This element is expressed in the above passages.  The passages instruct us to immediately bury the dead.  This admonition is expressed regarding a criminal who has been executed by the courts.  Even in this case, immediate burial is required.  The Torah explains the reason we must quickly bury the criminal.  His hanging corpse is a blasphemy of Hashem.  How is this corpse a blasphemy?

Rashi addresses this issue and quotes our Sages.  He suggests we consider an analogy.  A king has a twin brother.  This brother is arrested for robbery and hanged. Whoever sees the hanging body of the criminal brother says, “The king is hanging!”  Rashi explains that we are created in the image of Hashem.  When a human being is killed, degraded, or his dignity disregarded, an act of blasphemy is committed against Hashem.  We are acting against an effigy of Hashem.  The murderer destroys a human being created in Hashem’s image.  Because every human being partakes of His image, the taking of a life is an affront to Hashem – it is a blasphemy.[5]


The dignity of humanity

In short, according to Rav Soloveitchik, our passages equate murder and blasphemy.  There are two messages in this equation.  One message concerns the tragedy inherent in the loss of human life.  Every person is created in the Divine image.  This design endows us with individuality and renders every human being irreplaceable. The second message adds a new dimension to the sin of murder.  Murder is more than an act against another human being.  It is also an act of blasphemy against Hashem.  When we disregard human life – created in the image of Hashem – we blaspheme Hashem.[6]

In the above discussion we have focused on the consequences for the crime of murder and for causing serious bodily injury to another human being.  Through this discussion we have developed a better understanding of the Torah’s perspective on the value and significance of human life.  This perspective should underlie our treatment of every human being – friends, acquaintances, and even those with whom we have differences.  Every human being is precious – irreplaceable.  Every one of us is a reflection of our Creator.

[1] Rav Soloveitchik added that Hashem was also revealing to Moshe the reason for the severity of the blasphemer ’s punishment. The equation between the murderer and the blasphemer is reversible.  Each is the equivalent of the other.  Because the blasphemer’s act is equated to murder, he is put to death.

Rav Soloveitchik’s meaning is not clear.  One who takes a human life has destroyed a human being created in Hashem’s image.  The Divine image embodied in the human being renders the person irreplaceable.  This explains the severity of the sin and the justice of its consequence.  However, it does not obviously follow that blasphemy is a sin of equal severity.  Ultimately, these sins differ. One who murders has done terrible harm.  One who blasphemes has not hurt another person.  Certainly, he has not caused damage to Hashem! Possibly, in equating the blasphemer with the murderer, Rav Soloveitchik is anticipating his contention – which will soon be presented – that murder is a form of blasphemy.  It follows that outright blasphemy should be punished as severely as murder.

[2] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary of Sefer VaYikra 24:19.

[3] See Mesechet Baba Kamma 83b for a similar analysis.

[4] In other words, according to Ibn Ezra, the Written Torah reveals the ideal consequence and the Oral Tradition explains how that ideal is transformed into a practical system of law.

[5] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 21:23.

[6] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Recorded lecture, Achare Mot/Kedoshim – Emor I.