All Part of the Whole: The Value of Each Life

Whosoever saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire world.
– Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

A fundamental Jewish principle is that man is created “in the image of God” and therefore, possesses inherent dignity and worth. The rabbis teach that this inherent worth is the reason that man was created as an individual and not in the aggregate. That is, God created Adam and Eve, not Adam-Eve.   Perhaps more significantly, by beginning the story of man with Adam and Eve rather than with Abraham and the beginning of the Jewish people, the Torah is making clear that every person, not only Jews, is worthy of this same dignity and respect, having descended from the same two individuals.

We affirm this principle in our rituals and practices, from the blessings we place on our children at Shabbat, to burial rites, to the Seder table and more. Our practices make clear that the value of the community is dependent on the value of the individual.

But the world is forever challenging our Jewish principle and our practices. We live in a brutal, impersonal world. We feel the hurt of the world during Internet exchanges, brusque communications, getting on and off a crowded subway. The world often feels cold and impersonal.

In this vast impersonal-ness how does one find his individuality and a community to embrace him? For, as humans, we require both – individuality and union. To have one without the other is to diminish ourselves and our existence. Finding the balance between the two defines who we are – too much individual and we become selfish and demanding, lost and alone; too much “community” and our individual selves are lost in the noise of the modern world.

Where is the balance?

Let us consider the minyan. Ten individuals. One group. The yid is both an individual and at the same time fully part of a larger collective. One individual, singular and exclusive among ten other singular and exclusive “ones”.

Should one yidele be absent, the minyan cannot address God in full glory and shevach; we may not recite any davar sh’bekdusha.

“When a corpse is found fallen in the field in the land God is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who the murderer is. Your elders and judges must go out and measure … The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it.’”

Torah law does not allow for an individual to be left to his own fate. Every individual member of a community must be embraced by the community and by its leadership. The community as a whole is responsible for the fate of each individual, his well-being, safety, and security.

Rashi calls our attention to the obvious question – Would anyone ever imagine or suggest that the elders, righteous, moral, and pious, would have murdered this strange passerby? The simple answer is, No. But it is not the action that is being considered. It is that the toneand attitude of a community are defined by the leadership. The way we relate to an individual and his needs filters down from on high; Elah lo reinuhu u’patrunuhu belo melonot u’blo levaya (Sota 45).

A group, a community that does not react strongly and expeditiously to monstrous acts is a society whose leadership is oblivious to the fate of the individual. A society which allows arch terrorists to be treated as equals with legitimate governments is a society adrift, a society without leadership. A society which remains silent as tens and hundreds of thousands are exterminated is a society with bloodied hands.

So too, a society whose leaders look the other way when its most innocent members, its children, are made vulnerable. Have we not heard too much about the leaders of religious communities turning a blind eye to the predators in their midst? No group can be blameless. The Jewish community too must do everything in its power to protect the most precious amongst us, our children, and it need not be prompted to meaningful and concrete action by horrific tragedies such as we mourned over earlier this summer. There can be no excuse or rationalization for those who prey upon our most glorious promise and possession.

Children, indeed all individuals are safe, secure, and sound only as long as their leaders are concerned about their personal protection and security, and willing to take whatever measures are necessary to guarantee that security.

Yet, as hurtful as the world often is; as dehumanizing as it so often feels, certainly, no event or context drives home the brutality and impersonal nature of life more than modern warfare. A bomb dropped from a plane or a drone does not distinguish one person from the next. A soldier placed in a dangerous, volatile situation does not have the time or the luxury of considering the fullness of his enemy’s life, when his own life is in immediate danger.

In recent days and weeks, as Gaza has once again become a war zone and international condemnation is heaped upon Israel for its efforts to respond to thousands of missiles, terrorist bombings and potential infiltrations from below the ground, it is not unfair to ask whether this Jewish value still has meaning. How can Jewish and Israeli fighters conduct war and still somehow honor our fundamental principles?   Certainly, seeking an end to war – peace – is a laudable way to embrace those principles. But it is not so easy to find peace when your enemy insists only on war.

Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, famously notes that there would be peace between the Arabs and Israel only when, “…the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

She captured the dilemma in another comment that captures how difficult it is and will be for us and the Arabs to move forward. “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

In the modern world, there are moments when the harshness of life can be soothed; there can be minyanim where individuals can be celebrated while being part of a community. But can the same thing happen in war?

It is not often the case that “IDF” and “humanitarian” are voiced in the same sentence, but in fact we have ample evidence that even in the “haze of war”, even while confronting an enemy set on the absolute destruction of Israel, IDF soldiers not only conduct war but find ways to honor the deep Jewish principle of the value of each, individual life. Consider the account that was published by the staff of “Israel Today” on July 20th.

“In yet another demonstration of how Israel differs from its enemies, an IDF soldier on Sunday posted to Facebook a photo of he and his fellow army medics working to save the life of a wounded Hamas terrorist who only moments earlier had tried to kill them.”

Imagine! A soldier not moments after an encounter with a terrorist bent on killing him, that very same soldier shifts from treating that person like an enemy and treats him with the dignity and care of a patient! The soldier, Daniel Albo, wrote, “Today, my unit and I saved the life of a terrorist who tried to kill us simply because we are IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens. We saved his life simply because we are human. Proud to serve in the IDF.”

The actions of this young soldier and his colleagues was not an aberration. About the same time, “Israeli army officials announced the opening of a military field hospital along the northern Gaza border in order to provide medical care to wounded Palestinian civilians.”

Could there be a more stark difference between Jews and its enemies? While Hamas strategically puts civilians in harm’s way, Israeli soldiers seek to provide medical care to those same civilians – their so-called “enemy”.   Israel’s humanitarian efforts even as the war is being fought is not limited to people injured by the fighting. The IDF field hospital provides obstetric care for pregnant Palestinian women who cannot reach hospitals in Gaza.

There is no question that the IDF is a fighting force of exceeding skill and courage. It is also true that, as is always the case in war, far too many innocents die. However, in the history of warfare, has there been a fighting force more willing, more determined, to see its “enemy” not as the “other” but as individual human beings, worthy of dignity and respect?

As this importance of the individual finds its expression in our relationships with all people, how much more is this lesson within the Jewish community itself! Certainly, it is intrinsic to the lessons of Shoftim. Parashat Shoftim begins with the words: Shoftim veshotrim titen lecha” – judges and bailiffs shall you appoint in all of your gates.”The emphasis is on the singular. Lecha. For you. Only when the rights and liberties of individuals are protected and secured do the judges become legitimate leaders of a Jewish society.

The Likutei Yehuda points out that genuine and authentic leadership represented by the shoftim follows the theme of the festivals (at the end of Re’eh) which incorporates the concern for the underpriv­ileged; the orphan, widow and ger. This is no mere coincidence. Wherever the Torah speaks of mishpat, it simultaneously teaches about tzedakah (Veshamru derech Hashem la’sot tzedakah umish­pat; mishpat utzedakah beYaakov atah asita.) There can be no true and moral justice or meaningful leadership without concurrent concern for the individual, particularly for the individual whose life, safety, and security would otherwise not be guaranteed.

The Rambam writes in the second chapter of Hilchot Teshuva (2), “Since the scapegoat, sair hamishtaleach, was an atonement for all Israel, the High Priest made confession over it in the name of all Israel, as it is said “and he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel.”

Rav Soloveitchik explains that since the sair is a korban tzibur, the atonement which it attains is a collective one. The individual is not forgiven directly but through the atonement granted to the tzibur as a whole, and each individual Jew partakes of this atonement as a member of the klal. Each Jew is granted atonement on Yom Kippur as an individual, and indirect atonement through the channel of the general kaparah granted to the klal.

On Yom Kippur we pray, Melekh mochail ve’solaiach la’avonotainu, God who forgives our sins as individuals; vla’avonot amo bait yisroel –and the sins of the house of Israel. A collective.

To be a member of the Jewish community means to never lose a sense of individuality, or of the value of the individual. It means to find the balance between “I” and “we”. The Jewish community, the tzibur, is not simply a gathering of individuals, lost in the relentlessness of time. It is a wholeness, a mysterious singularity to which every single Jew belongs.