What good is a human being Judaism answers the question


Leviticus 9:1-11:47

II Samuel 6:1-7:17

On June 4, 1783, in a market square of a small town outside of Paris, a huge taffeta bag some 33 feet in diameter was tethered to a platform under which a smoky bonfire of wet straw and old wool rags filled the balloon with hot air.

The large crowd cheered as the machine de l'aérostat was cut from its moorings and set free to rise majestically into the noontide sky. It went 6,000 feet into the air before it came to earth several miles away in a field, where it was promptly attacked and torn to pieces by pitchfork-waving peasants who considered it an instrument of evil.

Thus ended the first public ascent of a balloon, a baby step in the history of human flight.

Benjamin Franklin, a representative of the new American republic, was there to observe this event. A bystander asked Franklin what possible good this ballon "thing" could be. Franklin's memorable rejoinder was recorded for history.

He replied: "Eh, à quoi bon l'enfant qui vient de naître?" What good is a newborn baby?

An extension of Franklin's response provides serious philosophical questions: What good is anybody? What is the purpose of each life?

Judaism has always answered these questions with an affirmative declaration that each human being is precious and can make a difference.

For example, the Zohar, the book of mystical musings, uses the life of Noah to illustrate the importance of each human being and the obligation of each person toward others.

After the floodwaters receded, Noah exited the ark. He surveyed the carnage and destruction of humanity, and he asked God: "You are supposed to be HaEl HaRachaman, the God of rachamim, of mercy. Why did you destroy all of humanity?" God responded with an angry reprimand: "Now you ask the question? Why did you wait until nothing could be done?'"

By addressing the prescriptions for sacrifices, Parashat Shemini, this week's Torah portion, illustrates the importance of each individual's actions and their impact on society.

The priests were punctilious about the sacrificial fires, the perfection of the animal to be offered, the handling of the sacrifice, the sprinkling of the blood and the parts of the animal to be turned into smoke.

Deviation from the prescribed formula could lead to disaster, illustrated in the narrative of Aaron's two sons, Nadab and Abihu. Both were novice priests.

"Each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died…" (Leviticus 10:1-2)

This rather harsh narrative focuses on the effect of people's actions on themselves and on others. This and other ritualistic portions of Leviticus also prompt readers to recognize the importance of each individual.

Shemini is a reminder to employ vigilance in our relationships with others and with God because such care makes a big difference in our lives.

In a subsequent Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19), the application of precision and care to the ethical behavior is championed: You shall not place a stumbling block in the path of the blind. You shall revere your parents. You shall not worship alien gods. You shall leave the gleanings of your harvest for the poor and the needy. You shall not withhold the wages of a hired laborer.

Each dictum ends with the words, "I am the Lord." The reader is reminded that just as God is conceived of as merciful, each individual must become a merachem, an agent of mercy who extends a compassionate hand to those in need.

When we add love to a house, it becomes a home. Righteousness added to a town transforms it into a community. Truth affixed to a brick building yields a place of learning. Faith developed in even the most humble structure creates a house of worship. Justice added to the daily association of human beings creates a civilization.

One puzzling line from Shemini refers to the Exodus from Egypt with the words, "I brought you up" instead of the usual, "I brought you out" (Leviticus 11:45).

The word "up" is substituted for "out" because the Hebrew verb alah, to go up, refers to a higher purpose. That is why the same term is utilized for being called as up to the Torah, or making aliyah — going up to Israel to live.

The term "up" rather than "out" is utilized to elevate each of our lives to a higher purpose. Each individual can, indeed, make a difference by hearing the voice that calls people up to a higher plane where it is possible to become a merachem — an agent of mercy.