Sanctify Life

Sometimes life is simple; sometimes it is terribly complex. Simplicity is when the choices presented are clear; good and bad are easy to identify, and good is an easily accessible choice. Sometimes, though, we are forced to choose between two goods, or alternatively, to choose the lesser of two evils. It is in these situations that ethics come into play. Sometimes our considerations will focus on short term success; other times, long term, macro considerations prevail. Sometimes our choices are completely logical, and sometimes what drives us is something beyond logic.

The Torah values life in many ways, and is even described as a book of life:

Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her; and happy is everyone who holds her fast. (Proverbs 3:17,18)

Additionally, the Torah instructs us to use the laws it lays down in order to live:

And guard my statutes, and my laws which a person should perform and live with them: I am God. (Vayikra 18:5).

Before you I have placed life and death, the blessing and the curse. You must choose life, so that you and your descendants will survive. (D’varim 30:19)

Sometimes, though, life is complex. The value of human life and the Torah principle of choosing life may at times lead us to conclude that we should avoid any conflict, regardless of the circumstances, the threat, the ideal or cause. An extreme choice of life would render an army unnecessary. The only problem with this approach, of course, is the attitude of our neighbors. We would be gambling our lives and the wellbeing of our children on the currency of the goodwill of others. Choosing pacifism because of our love of life may well result in the opposite of life.

Mahatma Gandhi, who not only preached pacifism but personified it, preached to the Jews in 1938, that for the sake of avoiding conflict we should embrace suffering and death:

If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy.[1]

In the face of this type of pacifism, we choose life – even if the path to life is war – and, paradoxically, unavoidably, death.

In this week’s parasha we find the verses that have guided Jewish thought and action for millennia:

Be careful regarding My commandments and keep them; I am God. Do not desecrate My holy name. Sanctify me among the Children of Israel. I am God who sanctifies you (Vayikra 22:31-32)

On the one hand, the Talmudic tradition (Brachot 21b) derives from these verses the value of communal prayer: We pray together and thereby sanctify God as a community. The image of a nation united in prayer is idyllic and elevated. On the other hand, the Talmud understands that sanctifying God’s Name is often far more demanding. There are times when we must draw a line in the sand and even sacrifice our lives to sanctify the name of God (Sanhedrin 74a). In such cases, the choice of martyrdom or war is a short-term tactic in the pursuit if the long term strategy.

Throughout our history, there have been countless Jews from all walks of life - rich and poor, young and old, women and men - who chose death or a path that led to death, in the shadow of the cross, crescent, or swastika. In the modern world, the State of Israel embodies and symbolizes the Jewish People, and today’s anti-Semitism hides behind increasingly politically correct anti-Israel rhetoric. Here in Israel, though, this new-old anti-Jewish hatred is not limited to words.  Every day, we are threatened by knives, guns, tunnels, bombs and rockets. In the pursuit of peace, we have lost many brave people, young and old. They, too, are holy, like the martyrs throughout Jewish history whose lives were lost sanctifying God’s name. The victims of violence, the soldiers who have fallen in defense of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, chose life for us all.

One soldier, an officer named Roi Klein, chose life in a somewhat unconventional manner: During a particularly difficult battle in southern Lebanon, Major Klein detected a grenade that had been hurled at his Golani troops. He lunged for it, smothering it with his body, and screamed for his soldiers to take cover. And then, like Rabbi Akiva, and like so many martyrs throughout our history, he calmly but with intense conviction said the Shma. Roi Klein did not choose death; he chose life for his soldiers and life for his People. He sanctified God’s Name, and became sanctified himself, in the midst of the Jewish people.

As we mark Yom HaZikaron we remember all those who fell. May Roi Klein, and all the soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom, be elevated to the highest places in heaven. May there be no more need for sacrifice like theirs. May we merit sanctifying God in life, in prayer, living in peace. We continue to pray that the nations of the world will, at last, recognize our right to live in peace in our homeland, and welcome us into the neighborhood that has been far too contentious. For our part, we will continue to choose life, and to mourn those who did not live to see the peace we so desperately seek.

[1] The Gandhi Reader: A Sourcebook of His Life and Writings, p. 318ff.

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