Studying Arachin While Staying in Home Isolation
When we all entered home isolation two months ago, my family and I – searching for a new learning project – decided to study Talmud Arachin together, which we completed earlier this week. Short and remarkably focused in scope, Arachin serves as an extended commentary on the final chapter of the book of Vayikra, this week’s parsha. Vayikra 27 is quoted more than 50 times in this short, 34 page Tractate; no other section of Chumash is quoted with any regularity.
This choice of Tractate might seem surprising given the circumstances. Aside from brief excursus into Biblical musical instruments (10a-13b), materials engineering (19a-19b), and the evils of gossip and leprosy (15a-16b), this section of Talmud focuses on donations given to the temple. There are no discussions of prayer-for-sickness or fasts-of-repentance. Just discussions of donating one’s value to the temple, one’s field to the temple, or one’s purchased property to the temple.
Still, there are two lessons that Tractate Arachin and Vayikra Chapter 27 teach me, which have resonate with me deeply at this time of pandemic and worry.
The first is the Torah’s radical commitment to equality for all. The system of Arachin donations sets a fixed value for temple donations, irrespective of one’s social status, net worth, tribe, or profession. Kohanim, Leviim, and regular Jews (2a), the miserably ugly or afflicted with boils (4a), blind, deaf, mute, or insane (2a), “the most beautiful member of Israel and the most unattractive member of Israel” (13b) all pay the same amount when they dedicate their value to the temple. The Torah profoundly states that we are all equal before our Creator, and there is no hierarchy of value or worth between different types of Jews.
As we face a virus that affects all of us, equally, and pays no favoritism by wealth or social status – I am moved by the Torah’s statement that we are similarly all equal before our Creator.
The second theme of Arachin is an overwhelming concern for the poor. Individuals who cannot meet their pledges to the temple can negotiate lower settlements of amount due (7b, 17a, 20a). When assets are seized to pay a debt, we do not seize food, clothing, or tools (23b). If one tries to donate all one’s property to the temple, we do not accept it (28a). Poor individuals who sold their fields (29b) or homes (31a) because of hard times have the opportunity to reverse the sale. We see how concern for the destitute in Judaism is not limited to the verses that relate directly to Tzedakah, charity. It is pervasive throughout the Chumash and the Talmud, and the fact that it is a leitmotif of something as arcane as temple donations shows how much a part of the fabric it is throughout Judaism.
The financial implications and job losses in our community that have followed the pandemic are massive, and Tractate Arachin reminds us of the importance of supporting those that need help, through our local charitable organizations.
The final page of Arachin (33b) discusses urban planning and teaches when one cannot turn a park into a field, or a field into a park, thereby ruining the beauty of the city. As I complete my study of Arachin, two months after all of the parks and fields in our town have become deserted, I reflect and hope for the moment when our cities, parks, and fields all become repopulated again. Perhaps if we learn the two lessons of the Tractate, and also the two lessons of the pandemic – our enduring equality and our enduring concern for those in need – may we merit the blessing of the end of the Tractate and our cities, parks, and fields, returning to normal.