In Mishnaic times, when someone accidentally killed, they had to flee to a City of Refuge, which would serve as a safe haven from would-be avengers. There were three cities east of the Jordan and three to its west. The Talmud wonders why there was a need for the same number to the east, when the population there was far smaller. The answer given is that there were more murders to the east than there were to the west. But murderers don’t get refuge – their punishment is death - ask the Rabbis. The Talmud replies that in a place where murder is commonplace, the value of life diminishes and consequently there are more accidental deaths.
We Israelis and Jews have long boasted about our tremendous value for life. We’re proud of the fact that we never forget about our soldiers – no man is left behind, nor forgotten. Every death – whether victim to war, terrorism or road accidents – pains us greatly. But is this for real or is it just empty, oft-repeated rhetoric? If we really did value life so much, then why would we continue to drive so fast, jump red lights and ultimately create an environment where our roads are so frightening?
The time has come for us to admit to ourselves that if life was really so sacred to us, we would do things differently. As I was driving along Route 1 last week, I was forced to slam on the breaks because a fellow driver cut across me at high speed, with no concern for anyone else on the road. Does he value life? He would claim that of course he does – after all he had a bumper sticker calling for the return of the kidnapped soldiers.
It reminds me of my shul. The shul wants to be friendly. So how does it go about be friendly? It appoints a "friendly officer" to stand by the door welcoming people. People might rarely talk to anyone new, and it’s quite unlikely that you’ll get invited by someone else for a meal, But there is a "friendly officer." These people simply don’t get friendliness. You make a shul friendly... by being friendly. When people are warm and welcome strangers, they are friendly. When a shul has to appoint a committee to make some friendly decisions, they have missed the point.
Likewise with valuing life. Valuing life isn’t about printing on the front page of the newspapers the names of everyone who dies in a car accident or in a military operation. Valuing life is making sure that they don’t die in the first place. It might not be so dramatic, but valuing life is about driving slowly and courteously. Currently, we do not value life any more than anyone else.