By DONNIEL HARTMAN
Life is cheap in the Middle East and for that matter often in the world at large. Blood is something we have become inured to. We regularly read of the deaths of thousands and sometimes tens of thousands from natural or human-induced tragedies.
One of the unique and fascinating features of Israeli society is that, for the most part, we have not forgotten the sacredness of every individual life, despite our decades-long battle for survival and the more than 22,000 victims – soldiers and civilians alike – who have died to build this country. The efforts made to bring Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home, and the focus on saving Gilad Shalit are powerful examples of how this value is rooted in Israel’s Jewish national consciousness. It is as the rabbis in Mishnah Tractate Sanhedrin have taught: the saving of one life is equal to the saving of a whole world, and the taking of one life is the equivalent of the taking of a whole world.
However, one of the great paradoxes and peculiarities of the State of Israel is that we often have a higher level of sensitivity to military casualties than we have to civilians’. We have a much higher level of outrage when dealing with victims of terror than with victims of everyday evil. Ten to 12 people can be killed a week in car accidents with nary an eyebrow raised, while two victims of a terror attack can bring the country to a standstill for days.
This last week three Israeli children were murdered by their families. The media gave to these tragedies their proper due. The murders of every one of these children received page-one coverage and opened the nightly news.
Now, I have no desire to exaggerate this phenomenon, or portray these deaths as a symptom of Israel’s moral decay. Tragedies of these proportions will not continue week in and week out. Overall, relative to other countries, the murder rate here in Israel is still proportionally low.
This will comfort some. After all, one of the core foundations of Zionism was a desire to bring the Jewish people back to a normal existence entailing our susceptibility to the "normal evils" that befall all people who live in the real world.
Despite embracing normalcy, however, Israel was never formed to be a country like all others, and the Jewish people never saw the larger world as our moral barometer. One of the core features of the Jewish people is that we have always defined our own standards and fought for our right to live by them. The State of Israel is the product of this history and this people can afford to do no less.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shofetim, we are taught that when somebody is found dead in or near a city, the political, religious and judicial leaders must present a sin offering – the egla arufa – and declare: "Our hands did not shed this blood nor did our eyes see this done. Absolve, O Lord, your people who you redeemed, and let not blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel." (21:7-8).
A Jewish society is one that recognizes indirect responsibility and culpability for that which we allowed to happen, not merely for that which we directly caused. When somebody is killed in a society, it is not simply the moral decay or depravity of the individual murder that needs to be investigated, but the possible complacency and complicity, even if indirect, of others as well. Were there signs, calls for assistance from either the murderer or victim that could have avoided and prevented the tragedy if given proper attention? Did we do all that we could to create a society where such a tragedy would not occur?
I don’t think the horrific deaths of the three babies this week reflect a moral callousness and decay in our society at large, nor a larger crisis of values. They do, however, reflect a dulling of our senses, and a diminution of our ability to hear the cries of others. We find out again and again that there were signs on the wall when children are abused or murdered and when husbands beat or murder their wives, voices that called forth for help that were ignored. Car accidents, which take hundreds of Israeli lives each year, occur again and again on roads with clearly deficient safety features. We are experts at hearing the calls for help when it is too late. We are always ready to appoint national commissions to investigate after the fact. We have become a society that excels at post-mortem morality.
The law of egla arufa challenges us to recognize this is not sufficient. A Jewish society is one in which every individual feels responsible not merely to give financial assistance to the needy, to bring criminals to justice, but to pay attention to our neighbors. We don’t need a commission to investigate what is happening in an Israeli society that has allowed the tragedies of this week to occur. These commissions absolve us of our individual responsibilities. What we need is to remind every one of us of our duty to recommit ourselves to being better listeners.
There are tragedies we cannot prevent, but there are many that we can. If there is any crisis of values in this society it is not because, as Binyamin Netanyahu has stated, we must bring people back to studying Jabotinsky instead of teaching the "Nakba." The crisis in values is that we don’t fully accept our individual responsibilities to love our neighbors as ourselves, or as in the words of Hillel the Elder: What is hateful unto you do not do unto others.
Let us all individually commit ourselves not merely to honor and mourn the dead and bemoan the tragedies, but to prevent them. It is in our power as individuals to save a single life, and whoever saves a single life has saved a whole world. The Jewishness of Israel will ultimately be measured not by our kashrut policies during the shmitta year, on whether hametz can be sold on Pesach, nor by whom we allow to convert, but by whether we allow this Jewish value, the responsibility to listen to the cries and needs of others, to permeate our individual and collective lives.