Adam. Tree. Torah. In each, the singularity represents its commonality.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimeon ben Yochai tells us, “You, the Jews, are referred to as Adam, not so the nations of the world.”
This declaration is, on first read, troubling. Was he suggesting that only Jews are singular and unique; that only Jews hold a special place in Creation?
My grandfather, the sage Rabbi Bezalel Zev Shafran, z”l, author of Responsa R’Baz, explained, “One of the most basic differences between the Jewish nation and the nations of the world is the value and worth Jews place upon the life of an individual human being. We recognize this clearly in the Torah’s exempting of the individual soldier from military duty; the individual soldier who was just married, the individual soldier who recently built a new home, the individual soldier who recently planted a vineyard – they are excused from military service in spite of the fact that the national and collective welfare is at stake. The individual Adam’s feelings, sensitivities and concerns supersede even the national concern.”
Therefore, Rabbi Shimeon ben Yochai said, atem kruin adam – only among Jews is the individual life’s concerns of such paramount importance; v’ein umot ha’olam kruin adam – no such value and principle exists amongst the nations of the world.
My uncle Rabbi Hanoch Heinich Shafran, z’l, footnoted the words and understanding of Shimeon ben Yochai and my grandfather when he noted that all other words for “man” – ish, enosh, gever – can appear in either the singular or the plural. But adam only appears in the singular. So it is that among all the nations of the world, any national can belong to any religion, hence a French Protestant or a Lebanese Muslim. Not so the Jewish nation and religion.
This is a painful truth to confront in a pluralistic world, but a difficult truth is a truth nonetheless. Indeed, the high value Jews place on life as compared to others was demonstrated clearly in the recent Gaza operation. While Hamas used civilians as human shields, the Israelis sought to avoid civilian casualties.
For them, their battle was a necessary duty that imbued with the recognition that even in war – perhaps particularly in war – life is valuable and sacred.
The military rabbis brought several Torah scrolls with them on the buses to Gaza with the troops. When the soldiers entered Gaza, they did so in two rows. The rabbis stood in the middle. As each soldier passed, a hand went out to kiss the Torah. This is how our soldiers entered Gaza, with a hand reaching out to touch the eitz chaim, the tree of life.
Judaism teaches that each life is sacred. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that “Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.”
Life is good. Not one man’s or another’s but every man’s. Life itself is good. We know this because it is the spirit of God, moving through every living thing, that provides the gift of life.