Arachin: Value and Worth in the Balance

Our moment in modern culture finds large swaths of people bogged down in malaise. Once, when we considered a new car or new furniture, we asked about the cost of things; when considering a vacation or the relative merits of considered experiences, we questioned how much time to devote on a project. That is, we once asked, Is it worth it? Now when we consider a purchase, or a vacation, or a project, we are more likely to ask, Am I worth it?

We are beset by a malady as old as time but that is exaggerated and magnified in our relentless culture. We have lost our faith in our self-worth. In our own minds and culture, we have become just another commodity, one whose value is decidedly uncertain.

An anonymous source suggests that, when you know your worth, no one can make you feel worthless. True. But the flip side is that if you don’t know your worth, no one can convince you that you are worthy.

Self-help seminars abound. Bookshelves – both real and virtual – are weighted with self-help books. It seems everywhere one looks, he is advised how to look better, feel better, be better. Superficially, the goals of these books and seminars – self-improvement – is hard to criticize. Making oneself better is a worthy pursuit. The problem is that these “solutions” are addressing the wrong thing and, as a result, rarely accomplish their purported goals.

Ultimately, the source of our malaise, our uncertainty, our unhappiness is not the color of our hair, our weight, the car we drive or the size of the home we live in. And because these things are not the source of our unease in the world, coloring our hair, losing weight, buying a new car or remodeling our house will not bring us happiness or satisfaction.

Our disquiet is because we struggle to find value in ourselves.

We do not know if we are worth it.

Bechukotai. The name of the parasha is enough to cause fear and trembling. How can we help but shudder when we hear all that can befall our people and nation when we turn our back on the Torah? “Tochachasays it all. Is it any wonder that we defer when given the opportunity to receive the aliya when these words of rebuke are read? Indeed, the words crash down upon us like angry waves. It is no wonder that the custom is to read these tochacha verses in an undertone, as if by softening our voices we can soften the harshness of their message!

Softly spoken or not, we are audience to unspeakable punishments, each worse than the last until finally, finally chapter twenty-six of Sefer Vayikra is finally complete and we arrive, humbled and thankful, at the very last perek of Vayikra, chapter 27 where we learn of the laws of Arachin (valuations), the first of a series of different types of donations and pledges to the Beit HaMikdash.

We know that there are two kinds of sanctified property – kedushat damim (monetary sanctification) and kedushat ha’guf (physical sanctification). These are distinguished by the nature of the sanctity and reflected in many laws. No object or animal with monetary kedusha has intrinsic sacredness; it is sacred by becoming the property of the Sanctuary. No longer the property of any person, it becomes the property of Govoha (the Higher One) and can only be used for its sacred intent. The transformation from profane object to object with sanctity is complete. What once had no intrinsic holiness is now, with kedushat damim, intrinsically holy and may only be used as an offering on the Mizbeach (altar).

Just as one may vow to contribute specific amounts of money to the Temple, so one may vow to contribute the value of oneself, or another person. It is that vow, arachin, that is the focus of the opening of Vayikra’s last chapter.

Arachin speaks to the holiness inherent in the individual Jew; the “value” of his soul, as it were. Which raises the essential question, how to value such a “commodity”? How do we know if we are “worth” it?

Assessing the value of a house or a car or a horse is relatively easy. There are markets for each, markets defined by statistics aggregated over time that reduce these objects to quantifiable factors.

It’s math.

But there is no “soul” market. No aggregate of statistics that allow us to objectify and quantify “soul” factors. No adding or subtracting will help us derive the value of a soul, no way to quantify our worth. The Torah therefore provides a scale to help calculate arachin values. The primary measurable, objective variables used are age and gender that are calculated as follows: The first erech of a person’s life is from one month of age to five years. The second erech is from five years to twenty years. The third erech is from twenty to sixty years of age.

When one pledges to donate “the erech value of so and so, or of himself, the Torah instructs the Kohen to assess the valuation of the person whose erech has been pledged; the person who made the commitment to donate is then required to fulfill this vow/pledge.

To our modern ear, this arachin is a value system with no value! How can everyone aged one month to five years be worth the same amount? From twenty to sixty?

It makes sense that such a system strikes us as odd. We measure value based on the number of “friends” one has in a virtual world. We measure value based on age but on a linear scale – young are better than old. We measure value on appearance, or grades, or how many bench presses we can do in the gym. We measure value on the size of our bank accounts, or our investments.

Not the Torah. Not arachin. There, value is translated based solely on age and gender. If thirty-five-year-old Reuven pledges an erech of himself to the Temple treasury, thirty-five-year-old Shmuel pays the same fifty-shekel kesef – even if Shmuel has twenty times the assets and resources that Reuven has. So too if Reuven pledges an erech of his thirty-three-year-old wife and Shmuel pledges an erech of his twenty-eight-year-old wife, they both pay thirty shekels to the Temple treasury.

Everyone in the same age group and of the same gender pays the same amount.

Sanctification – real worth and holiness – can only be realized by an attachment to the Temple. And in the Temple, all pay the same Arachin amount. Sanctification, worth and value, is equal.

The message is clear. Every Jew is worthy. When contributing to Govoha the questions am I worth it or, what is he worth it? are rendered moot. Arachin, by definition, erases the false distinctions that cause us to question self-worth.  

The Shiltei HaGiborim notes that although it is true that the Temple treasury receives the same amount whether the money is given as an ordinary donation or in fulfillment of an erech pledge, an erech pledge not only adds to the Temple treasury but transforms the giver. Such a donation is not simply writing another check, it is not just about the gift but also about the giver. The giver senses the equality of worth of his gift. In God’s House there are no machers, no CEOs, no Wall Street tycoons, no self-promoting politicians. In God’s House there is only the erech. In each category, the same amount.

The Netziv makes the same point. He says that the act of donating the erech of a person to the Beis HaMikdash is meant to serve as a merit for the person.

What greater merit can there be for any human being than to reassure and embrace our self-worth. Self-help books address the false measures of worth (diet, looks, exercise, etc.) In God’s House, the fundamental “self-help” issue is addressed – self-worth! In God’s House, my erech, my self-worth is always assured. With my self-worth assured, the other, trivial issues that cause me anxiety and ill-ease are more successfully put in perspective.

If a tree falls in the forest…

If we don’t proclaim our worth, do we have it? The Alshich makes the important point that the erech donor must declare “erkhi alai”- I am vowing to contribute my worth. In doing so, he recognizes his sanctified self-worth and he realizes that he no longer is what he has been up until that moment. Perhaps even more important, he realizes that he is not what others have told him he was, not what the disgruntled boss told him, what the nervous teacher said, what his jealous friend said, what his anxious neighbor said, what his abusive parent or spouse said. He is not any of those things. He is eini asher ha’iti ad koh, not what I have been up until now. He is ki atah hukedashti l’shomayim ve’natati erkhi l’Hashem, sanctified unto Heaven and my value is unto God.

What a feeling! To be freed from the limits of what a subjective, prejudicial, compromising society tells me I am – erkhi alai. Value is not according to nimkar b’shuk, the value of the marketplace.

Coming to pledge arachin allows me to rise above false measures of “worth.” In the House of God only He measures true value, and before Him we all stand equal. The posuk is emphatic, b’erkecha nefashos l’Hashem.

The Alshich declares that before Hashem all are equal. Lo yada enosh erkan – no man knows his worth. Only God does. When I vow my erech l’Hashem, I join hands with Him to reaffirm my real worth.

Rabbi Safran’s recently published volume on all parshiyot ha’Torah available on Amazon