One of the great teachings of Judaism is that human life is sacred. The account in our parshah of the creation of Adam and Eve "in the Divine image" (Genesis 1:26-27) introduces the idea that human life is special.
It is true that from the perspective of the parshah all existence is special. Light, sea, dry land; sun, moon, and stars; vegetation, fish, birds, animals, insects — all is the amazing handiwork of G‑d the Creator. Yet there is still something extra about a human being.
One difference we see in the account of creation in our parshah is that while all other living creatures were created in large numbers, the first human being, Adam, was created alone. Adam combined within himself Eve. G‑d divided them and they produced offspring who eventually filled the whole world. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states that the fact that Adam was created alone is to teach us the significance of each individual: "Anyone who destroys a human life is considered as if he had destroyed an entire world, and anyone who preserves a human life is considered to have preserved an entire world."
The unique aspect of human beings is of course our power of free will. Everything else that G‑d created is simply subject to His built-in program, what we call “nature.” The flower grows in the sunlight; the bird of prey swoops on a field-mouse. The human being too has an inner “nature” which in some ways is not very different from that of an animal, desiring the same kinds of things: food, territory, satisfaction of instinctive passion. But a human being is also confronted with Divine commands which control and transform his or her animal nature. The choice that each person has, whether to follow G‑d’s command or one’s simple animal nature, gives us our identity as human beings.
As such, our actions have an immense effect. Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 3:4) presents the idea that we should consider the entire world to be equally balanced between good and bad, and that each of us as an individual is equally balanced between good and bad. Then, it is clear that if one does one good action, one tips the balance for oneself and for the entire world to the side of good, “bringing salvation to the world.” Thus the Lubavitcher Rebbe said concerning all humanity: “Acts of goodness and kindness will bring the Redemption.”
These mysterious creations, human men and women, are important. Every single one of them. Their lives are precious and cannot be thrown away. Murder is forbidden for both Jew and non-Jew. However, if a person tragically is trying to destroy others, and if despotic leaders persuade their people to engage in and to support acts of destruction, one must defend oneself, even preemptively. “If someone comes to kill you, rise early to kill him first,” says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a). The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds that your clear readiness to defend yourself could save your enemy’s life as well as your own.
Today, in Israel and elsewhere, we, the Jewish people, are under threat. So too is the concept of the sanctity of life, and indeed civilization as we know it. For the sake of humanity, we must defend ourselves. If we at least recognize this truth, then hopefully others will too. Recognizing the sanctity of life and being ready to do something to preserve it is an important step towards living up to our role as Jews and as human beings, with the power to tip the balance for a world of good.