Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making Life

I had an opportunity recently to think a little about the Israeli expression לעשות חיים.  Loosely translated as “having a good time” or “enjoying oneself”, it literally means “to make life”.  It seems to me that this expression is emblematic of what separates Israel from the other countries of the Middle East.

Israelis “Making Life”
The Jewish tradition of valuing life above all else is ancient.  The original, and most famous, evidence of this norm is found in Deut. 30:19, which reads, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.”   This text was utterly innovative, written at a time when human sacrifice was common.

Later Jewish sages expanded on this basic concept, allowing even the violation of the Sabbath—a transgression that itself was considered a capital offense—in order to save a life.  Indeed, Sabbath restrictions could be disregarded not only to save a life, but even to provide comfort for somebody whose life was in jeopardy, such as a woman in labor (BT Shabbat 129a).

What is truly amazing is the value that Jews continued to place on life, even after centuries of oppression, expulsion, and slaughter.  One might easily imagine a desire for revenge, born of righteous outrage, would ignite the passions of those who had suffered generation after generation of injustice.  After all, the very same book that tells us to “choose life” also instructs “Justice! You shall pursue justice.” (Deut. 16:20)

Interestingly (to me, at least), the injunctions to choose life and to pursue justice are each followed by the qualifying phrase “that you may live.”  Jewish tradition links the two concepts, tying them both to the idea that the ultimate goal is the continuity of life.  Even justice, which sometimes may appear to demand the death of another, can only be achieved if it is pursued with the ultimate goal of cherishing and preserving life.

In contrast, Israel's enemies exalt death.  Hamas educates its children to die for the cause.  Iran used children to clear minefields, wrapping them in blankets so the explosions wouldn't scatter their body parts.  And all over the Arab world, the “shahid”—“martyr”—who dies while taking the lives of Jews, is celebrated and adored.

After September 11th, many of us asked how we can defeat an opponent so corrupted that he eagerly plans to die for his cause, an opponent so brainwashed that he believes that the life that awaits him after his act of murder is many times better than that which he surrenders as a result.  We choose to live:  can we possibly overcome a foe who chooses to die?

Research in Israel: Targeting Cancer
Every day, nobody faces this question more directly than Israel.  They send their sons and daughters into battle;  they are attacked by missiles and threatened by tyrants.  And yet, each day Israelis “make life”—they create art, embrace freedom, and pursue economic success.  They engage in ground-breaking research, and hold themselves to the highest ethical principles.  This is their answer to those who choose death: we will live.  We will stop you if we can, and sacrifice if we must, but we will live, and as a result, we will still be here long after you and your barbaric allies have passed into history.

1 comment:

  1. The Jerusalem Post has just published a fascinating editorial on the topic of Jewish reverence for life. It contrasts the Jewish view on IVF and stem-cell research with that of other religions. Worth a read.