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Why Study Chemistry? Why Study Torah?

Recently my seventh graders engaged in a heated discussion about the virtues of the subjects they are studying in school. I asked them which class they liked the best. “Math,” said one. “FCS,” said another one. “What is FCS?” I asked. “Family and Consumer Science,” they answered. “What is “Family and Consumer Science?” I responded. “We learn how to cook and sew,” a student chimed in.

All their answers hinged on the subjects’ apparent usefulness. They reasoned they should know how to balance a checkbook and cook dinner. Learning about American history was another matter. Studying the periodic table did not make much sense. I offered, “Isn’t there value in learning for learning’s sake? Isn’t their merit in learning how to think? Isn’t there interest in finding meaning and inspiration in something as small as an atom?”

This week, I open the Torah to a flurry of laws. I read:
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21)
I hear my seventh grader’s questions. “What does a goring ox have to do with me? No one, I know, even owns an ox.”

The renowned biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna, suggests that the Torah’s laws are unique and stand apart from other ancient near eastern law codes. Other ancient codes made distinctions between the human life that was taken. In other words, there was a guilty party received greater punishment if the person killed or injured was a prince. A wealthy person’s life was accorded more weight. In the bible’s estimation, no distinction can be made between people.

Sarna writes: “The sanctity of human life is such as to make bloodshed the consummate offense, one viewed with unspeakable horror. Neither man nor beast that destroys a life can remain thereafter untainted.” All human life is precious. All people are created in God’s image.

It is not about the ox. It is instead about human life.

And it is about our responsibility to others. Each of us must protect the wellbeing of those around us.

It may appear irrelevant, but this is perhaps as important as O2 and H2O.

The laws about a goring ox can provide us with needed sustenance.