“May integrity and uprightness watch over me” (25:21)
We need that little voice to whisper in our ear when we are tempted to stray from the path of goodness and righteousness. When no one is watching, it is easy to talk ourselves into taking shortcuts, eating unwisely, and letting loose our selfish inclinations. We need to listen to the still, small, voice of our conscience telling us that even if no one else knows, we know whether we live with integrity or not. And when we succumb and habituate ourselves to giving in to evil in private, it will infect our public lives as well.
“My heart is like wax.” (22:15)
In the Psalm, the melting wax heart denotes weakness. But taken in and of itself, a wax heart is the opposite of a hard heart. Rather than being hard-hearted and stubborn, isn’t it better to have a sensitive malleable heart? A hard-hearted person thinks of himself or herself first. Do these people really need my help? Why should I be the one to step in? How will I benefit? A soft-hearted person thinks of others first and looks for ways to ease their suffering. A heart of wax is the price we pay for being vulnerable and allowing ourselves to feel.
“You have set upon his head a crown of fine gold.” (21:4)
We might understand the function of a kippah to be a mark of identification as a Jew and a reminder to the wearer of his or her Jewish responsibilities. A gold crown is a kippah, a thousand times heavier. Every person wears a crown denoting him or her as a being created in the image of God. It’s the ultimate participation trophy, with a twist. The crown is a weighty burden that functions as a constant reminder to live up to the responsibility and privilege of being human.
“Let the nations know they are human.” (9:21)
To say that we are only human is sometimes used as an excuse for making mistakes and engaging in bad behavior. But to be human should not be an excuse for behaving badly. To be human is to be just a little less than Divine, according to the Psalmist (8:5). Reminding us that we are human is setting a high bar, challenging us to act in a way which reflects our creation in the image of God.
Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, a mortal being, that You should think of him? A human being is like a breath, whose days are like a passing shadow. (144:3-4)
Every living thing has value, not matter how long or how short the life span. From a eternal God-perspective, their is no difference between a fertilized embryo which lives a matter of weeks or months and a person who lives a full life. God’s quality of caring and love applies equally to the child who died in utero and the elder who lives 102 years surrounded by three or four generations of descendants.
One way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to say that it does not ignore the embryonic life simply because it is unborn but neither does it give more weight to the woman simply because she is older. Rather, it treats the two of them as equally human, but if the embryonic life is threatening the life or health of the mother, then we take the embryonic life to spare the mother’s life. In the same way, if a mugger showed a gun and declared, “Your money or your life,” the potential victim or a bystander would be justified in taking the life of the mugger.
Another way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to see the baby as a dependent life akin to a limb of the mother. Just as one may remove a person’s limb when it threatens the health of the body, one may remove an child in utero if it threatens the mother. No matter which way one analyzes the ethics of abortion in Jewish law, midrash infuses the embryonic life with a soul. In other words, an abortion is not the killing of a soul-less child, but rather the necessary killing of a soul who is endangering another’s life.
While I have not seen a midrash which addresses what happens to the soul of a child which did not get the chance to be born, I imagine, because I believe that God cares about every soul, that the unborn soul whose life was cut off goes back to the Divine storehouse of souls. Every soul deserves a chance to live a life. A soul whose life was cut short before it could experience the trials and triumphs of a human life ought to be given a second chance to be born.