In Attending to Its Oldest and Youngest Members, Israel Chooses Life

January 26, 2021 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. His website, containing all of his media appearances, podcasts, and writing, can be found at

Considering two anomalous statistics about the Jewish state—the first, that it has by far the world’s highest rate of coronavirus vaccination; the second, that it is the only rich, Westernized country with a rising birthrate—Meir Soloveichik looks to the Deuteronomic commandment, “choose life, that thou and thy children shall live.” He writes of the first statistic:

As countries around the world dithered, Israel administered the COVID-19 vaccine at a rapid rate, focusing single-mindedly on the elderly and all citizens over sixty. Reaching a rate of 150,000 vaccinations a day, Israel in early January was on track to vaccinate all its seniors within weeks. It is a stunning embodiment of the exhortation in Leviticus to honor one’s elders, of the biblical obligation to revere those whose sacrifices brought the younger generation into being.

This attitude, Soloveitchik contends, may also explain the second statistic:

If the Jewish people have persevered, it is because of its stubborn clinging to perpetuation. Perhaps there is a deep connection between a society’s devotion to its elderly and to its newborns. A country that expresses reverence for those who come before will seek the perpetuation of the society their predecessors helped create.

This lesson is the essence of Jewish identity. Rabbi Joseph B, Soloveitchik noted that “Israel,” the name given by the Bible to the chosen nation, originally belonged to the patriarch also known as Jacob. This, he argued, is no coincidence: Jacob, he pointed out, is the only biblical progenitor who is seen interacting not only with children but grandchildren. Drawing Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe to him, the patriarch blesses them in the name of Abraham and Isaac, linking ancestors to descendants. We are all named for Israel because the original Israel, in joining generations, is our polestar; a nation that emulates his life cannot die.

With the coming of the vaccine, our forefather Israel was imitated in modern Israel. As Israeli seniors swarmed the vaccinations centers, one of them, Amnon Frank, expressed to the Israeli media what drew him there. “A grandchild without a hug is half a grandchild,” he reflected. “We haven’t hugged them since March.”

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