One of the great cuts from the eponymously titled album The Band, released in 1969. Sung in Rick Danko’s high soprano, the song ‘Across the Great Divide’ is a classic, typical of The Band, a ramble through small town Americana, with colorful down on their luck characters searching for redemption. It always seems to be just around the corner, just out of reach.
The song’s title takes on a different meaning in our country today, where an actual divide between the nation’s citizens, split almost 50-50, seems to grow wider and wider, deeper and deeper. This phenomenon has been analyzed and written about extensively over the last couple of years, and it has to do with a wide variety of factors, from geography to the economy to tribalism to the growing sense that our government has been failing its people now for a long time. But the lines are drawn and the trenches have been dug. We stare at one another across that growing distance and wonder if we can even recognize what we see on the other side anymore.
I am afraid we are beginning to see the current crises in the same way, as some kind of divisive issue that we must chose sides about. Over the last couple of days people have begun to stake out positions, really two of them. One, that the economy must ultimately be prioritized, even if that means that a certain number of human lives must be sacrificed along the way. The other, that human life should be protected and preserved by any means necessary, even if that means sacrificing the economy in the short term, with all of the pain and anguish that might bring.
I understand that is an oversimplification of the argument, that there is nuance to the two positions, that concepts like herd immunity and the subtle parsing of statistics must all be considered. But it is important to say that this debate is something about which Judaism is very clear. An overriding value in Jewish thought and Jewish law is that life must be preserved. Is there nuance within this conversation in the tradition as well? Yes, to an extent. But if there is any principle in the tradition that is clearly prioritized in almost every imaginable situation it is this: preserve life.
Consider this ringing call from Deuteronomy 30, which I read from the Torah the morning of my bar mitzvah, now 42 years ago: I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life! So that you and your children after you will live!
If you want to listen to the song Across the Great Divide, you can find it here. As always, thanks for reading, and your comments are appreciated.