“I don’t say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
(Death of a Salesman, Act 1, by Arthur Miller)
The cry of Willie Loman's wife echoes across the generations. The Psalmist asks a similar question:
O Lord, what is man that you should care about him, mortal man that you should think of him?” (Psalm 144:3) What is it that makes a human being unique, worthy of attention?
If the midrash is correct, this may have been one of the earliest questions ever asked. Bereshit Rabbah 8:5 records the opinion of Rabbi Simon who reads the verse in Genesis 1, na-aseh adam, let us make Man, as a question rather than a statement: “Shall we make a human?” Rabbi Simon teaches that when the Holy One came to create the first Human Being the Ministering angels formed groups. Hesed (lovingkindness) and tzedek (justice) voted in favor of our creation while peace and truth voted against. God broke the tie and human beings came into being. The Midrash reminds us that human beings possess equal measures of holy and destructive traits.
The Ministering angels apparently weren't sure we were worthy of being created, much less of continuing notice. But God disagreed. Human beings were formed in God's image and likeness; every human being bears that stamp. Even “if one is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day, for an impaled body is an affront to God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22:23) Rashi (ad loc) comments that it is a cheapening of the image. Even the worst of the worst don’t forfeit the image of God implanted within them.
Too many people are willing to say that human life is expendable. Millions have been lost to genocides, organized murder on a national level: Armenians, Hutus, Cambodians and more. The Nazis declared the Jews to be vermin, not true human beings. Some individual hold similar beliefs. The Social Darwinists accuse the poor of deserving their poverty. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina some declared the destruction came as punishment for imagined mis-behaviors on the part of some victims. These and more adopt the attitude that certain human beings are expendable, not worthy of attention.
The Torah disagrees. Every person deserves attention in the eyes of Torah. If Arthur Miller put a face to the plight of everyman when he created Willie Loman, the Torah removes any face and leaves us with an anonymous, faceless victim; the ultimate blank slate. Nonetheless, attention must be paid.
If someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer unknown, Your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance form the corpse to the nearby town. (Deuteronomy 21:1-2) No one knows this victim. He/she is found in the countryside. We are given no information about this forgotten soul. Since responsibility cannot be assigned to the one who perpetrated the crime, Torah requires those at the highest levels of communal leadership to step forward.
M. Sotah 9:1 teaches that “three from the high court in Jerusalem,” members of the Great Sanhedrin, be present. The elders and judges of the two closest towns were present. Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob even suggests that the king must be present. (B Sotah 45a) The distance was measured and the closest town was charged with the responsibility for that death.
Once it is decided which of the two towns bore responsibility then the corpse was brought down to a rocky valley. “A heifer from the herd which has never been worked and which has never pulled in a yoke,” (Deuteronomy 21:3) was brought to the site and decapitated with a hatchet from behind. The site where this takes place “is prohibited for sowing and for tilling.” (M. Sotah 9:5) It remains barren, a physical and visible reminder of death.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul, by focusing on the odd requirement to bury the body in such a forlorn site, asks the unspoken question: Why does this anonymous death deserve all of this attention?
Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul asks: Why did the Torah specify, “bring the heifer to a valley?” The Holy Blessing One said: Bring something that produced no fruit and break its neck in a place that produces no fruit, to atone for one who was not allowed to bear fruit.
What are those fruits?
Shall we say it is “to be fruitful and to multiply?”
If so, then [if the victim were] an old man or a eunuch we would not break the heifer's neck.
Rather, [the fruits we speak of are] mitzvot. (B. Sotah 46a))
Here Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul answers the Psalmist. What is Man that God should care about him? Human beings, the Rabbi responds, possess intrinsic worth in both the physical and the spiritual realms.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul would dismiss all those who would measure the relative worth of human beings. He would reject those who claim that some people are sub-human, not the same as you or I. He would put out of mind those who demonize others for their lifestyle or their life choices. Human beings possess intrinsic worth.
He sees the burial requirement as a metaphor. The barren site reminds us of the fruitfulness lost when this person was murdered.
One rabbinic voice asks how we are to understand that fruitfulness. The obvious answer reflects Yohanan’s choice of words. The very first command, perhaps the most human of impulses, is to be fruitful and multiply. If the murder prevented this soul from being fruitful in that way, perhaps it is understandable. But if they are unable to fulfill that biologic function, as an old man or a eunuch would be, perhaps they are indeed expendable.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul is not so easily trapped. Without denying our physical fruitfulness, he asserts we are not limited by our physical fruitfulness. “The fruits we speak of are mitzvot.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul sides with God and the angels who advocate creating human beings, even knowing in advance our potential destructiveness and evil. Every mitzvah we perform – from lighting Shabbat candles, to acts of tzedakah and lovingkindness, to honoring parents, to honesty in business, to preventing causeless hatred in the world – transforms the ordinary into the holy. Our life can bear fruit from our first breath to our last.
We mark the untimely, lonely and anonymous death of that person found abandoned in the field. The loss is not merely to him or his family; not a simple matter of loss of income or offspring. Humankind is made the poorer by his loss. Attention must be paid.
© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser