Jewish Value of Life Enshrined in High Holiday Liturgy and Israeli Nonprofits

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. Deuteronomy 15:11 (The Israel Bible™)

On the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the haunting poem Unetanah Tokef  (We shall ascribe holiness to this day) is sung as one of the most central prayers, describing the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah – considered to be the most solemn day of the year.

The poem says, “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die […] But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”

Jewish tradition maintains that the heavenly court of judgment keeps a Book of Life, where the names of the righteous are kept, as well as a Book of Death, with the names of the wicked. Both books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, and names can be moved from one book to another. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, these names are sealed.

However, one can remove the evil decree through repentance, prayer and righteousness – particularly in the form of giving charity. In other words, charity can free one from sin, purifying one’s name and guaranteeing life.

As man is made in the image of God, it is no surprise that the words of Unetanah Tokef lead into the next prayer, the Kedushah, Jewish liturgy sanctifying God’s name. The message is clear: through charity, man is given life and brings honor, respect and glory to God.  

As such, giving charity is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments) – considered an act of justice rather than a generous act, as it ensures the future of Jewish life and community.

Helping an individual in need is a righteous act that can ensure the life of the needy, and in the context of Jewish High Holiday liturgy, it can also ensure the life of the person giving charity.

As the Talmud teaches, “He who has saved just one life it is as if he has saved the entire world,” one can conclude that the righteous who give charity have the power to save the world many times over. And according to the daily Aleinu prayer, the goal of the Jewish people is to “repair the brokenness in our world by the work of our hands and our hearts,” also called Tikkun Olam.

This sanctification of life, in short, is the central value and goal of the Jewish people, and in the Jewish state, this value and liturgy come to life through charity work.

“We are aware that life can be very fleeting and we can come and go, only given a certain amount of time to accomplish good in the world,” said Bini Maryles, director of the boutique Israeli non-profit Just One Life. As its name suggests, the organization is named after the aforementioned Talmud quote about the magnitude of saving just one life.

“Our key goal is to provide an empowering opportunity for women to make good, smart, educated life-enhancing choices in often in difficult circumstances that ultimately provide for a better circumstances for themselves and their families,” said Maryles.

Such circumstances may include when a mother finds out that her baby may be ill, the life of the baby will not be sustainable, women in financial crisis with no way of supporting children, single mothers, married women who did not plan for another pregnancy, those who are emotionally or psychologically suffering and in need of therapy or support systems.

“Recently, a woman with a high-risk pregnancy came in where in-utero surgery was necessary. The family had no social support or people to talk to, to simply be there for them. Because of our support and services, they were able to make the right decision for themselves and their unborn child. That was a life-saving situation,” Maryles told Breaking Israel News.

Through providing direct services or a referral to provide help – no matter the mother’s circumstances or subsequent medical decisions – Just One Life has saved many more than one life (and an entire world). According to Maryles, more than 16,000 families have been helped through their programs, which include a 24/7 call-in service, parenting and self-help classes, home visits, clothing distribution, therapy, counseling and up-to-date resources for pregnant mothers.

“As Jews, we put human life above everything else,” maintained Maryles. “Human life is primary – it’s paramount and we aim to protect life as long as we can and live as long as possible – life is perhaps the most important item in Judaism,” he said.  

He added, looking toward the coming high holidays, “it’s certainly clear that part of what we are praying about and for in the New Year is to have an additional year to complete our life mission – imploring God to give us that opportunity.”

According to Maryles, Just One Life captures the value of life and chances to live life to its fullest. “When we pray for life, begging for more time, that’s what we are also trying to do – being a servant to that value and providing that opportunity.”

Written in coordination with Just One Life.