נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחד מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא, וכל המקיים נפש אחד מעלה הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא
Man (Adam) was created singly in order to teach that whoever destroys a human life, scripture teaches that it is as if he destroys an entire world, and whoever saves a human life, scripture teaches that it is as if he saves an entire world! (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b)
Generations of Jews have quoted this talmudic teaching to emphasize the value that our tradition places on each human life. The Talmud explains that just like Adam, the father of humanity, every individual possesses the potential to give life to an endless string of generations. The teaching also continues by noting that because we all come from the same ancestor (Adam), no individual ––Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc.––should ever be able to claim that his or her life is worth more than that of another.
I keep this teaching close to my heart to remember that even in times when the Jewish people are threatened at home or abroad in Israel, every individual life––Jew and non-Jew–– matters. The current escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas causes me a great deal of heartache because of the enormity of destruction to human lives. Regardless of who started it, who caused more damage to the other, or who is in the right, each human life lost in the conflict pains me.
I say this while simultaneously believing that Israel must defend herself when her civilians and her security are threatened. Israel holds a special place in my heart and soul. It is the land of our people, the land of our heritage, and the land that protects the safety and continuity of the Jewish people; yet support for Israel and our universalist value for human life are not mutually exclusive ideas!
In recent days I have been reading many alarming comments from my friends on Facebook. When the existence of the Jewish people is threatened, many Jews tend to devalue the lives of the threatening entity. I read one comment that heartlessly declared in Hebrew: "the time has come to burn Gaza to the ground!" This phenomenon of devaluing human life during times of danger has occurred throughout our history, even to the point of amending the fundamental talmudic dictum above. At some point in Eastern European History, a scribe who reproduced the Talmud shifted the emphasis upon all human life to: "whoever destroys the life of a Jew (נפש אחת מישראל) scripture teaches that it is as if he destroys an entire world, and whoever saves a Jewish life, scripture teaches that it is as if he saves an entire world!"* Many Talmud manuscripts still carry this insular message.
My support goes out to Israel, but my prayers go out to all those afflicted by the horrors of this conflict between Israel and Hamas. In recognizing the value of every human life, I hope that you all will join me in wishing for a speedy end to this current conflict. May it be God's will that Israel and her neighbors will find a peaceful way to coexist.
*The earliest manuscripts of this text from Italy, the Kaufmann and the Parma Di-Rossi manuscripts of the Mishna, preserve the universalist reading of the text. The later Vilna edition of the Talmud (from which most major current editions derive their text) uses the particularist reading.