In the days since Gilad Schalit returned home safely to his family after five years in captivity, much has been made of the fact that Israel is a country which values life over everything else.
A host of commentators have repeatedly stressed this point, proudly insisting that no one can compete with the Jewish state when it comes to upholding human existence.
After all, what other country would have traded more than 1000 prisoners to free one soldier?
The point was driven home last week by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, in a letter to IDF soldiers in which he asserted that Schalit's release reflects the army's commitment to the values of camaraderie and the importance of life.
And the prime minister himself went out of his way to stress that the Schalit exchange proves that "we believe in the sanctity of life. We sanctify life".
How I wish that it were true. But the sad fact is that as a society, we do not value life nearly as much as we might like to think.
The Schalit deal notwithstanding, anyone who has driven a car in this country or waited in a hospital emergency room can tell you that the safety and well-being of our fellow humans is not always at the top of our priority list.
For all the noble sentiments and lofty principles that were expressed in recent days, the truth is that in a range of areas, life seems to come in second.
Take, for example, the carnage on the roads.
According to statistics compiled by the National Road Safety Authority, a total of 315 people were killed in traffic accidents in the first 9 months of this year, a rise of 5 percent over the same period last year.
And a report released last year by the road safety advocacy group Or Yarok found that over the past decade, Israel was first among developed countries in child mortality as a percentage of total traffic-related deaths. Think about that the next time you take your car out for a spin. Take note of the number of traffic violations and dangerous moves made by your fellow "lovers of life" on the road.
Pay attention to how many times you are cut off, the number of people who run red lights, ignore traffic signals or tailgate you, and drivers who talk or text on their phones.
Indeed, many of those celebrating Schalit's freedom would not hesitate to endanger his life on the highway if he happened to be driving in their lane.
If we truly valued life, we would make a far more concerted effort to protect it when it happens to be behind the wheel or in a crosswalk.
The same goes for our underfunded, understaffed, collapsing health system. For months, a prolonged crisis involving doctors and residents led to shutdowns, surgery cancellations and other painful delays that directly affected patients.
Even now, medical residents are still threatening to resign after the Finance Ministry refused to meet their demands for a living wage and better working conditions.
If life was really something of utmost importance to us, would we have allowed this predicament to drag on for so long?
IN OTHER fields, too, one need not look far to find a similar level of apathy and indifference to human existence. For years, experts have been warning that Israel is unprepared for the large earthquake that seismologists believe will hit the country.
In chilling testimony to a Knesset committee last year, expert Dr. Avi Shapira warned that when a quake strikes, "what kills people are the buildings. Death will occur as a result of building collapse, meaning that it is a man-made tragedy. There is a continued failure to build stable buildings, turning buildings into death traps."
Although building standards are on the books, Shapira noted that they are "insufficiently enforced."
At that same committee meeting, the Israel Mapping Center submitted data indicating that 96,000 residential buildings in Israel are at risk of collapse during a strong earthquake.
This is all public knowledge, readily available to anyone who bothers to look. But seemingly because of the costs involved, successive governments have done little to address the problem, in effect putting untold thousands of lives at risk.
So much for placing life above all other values.
Don't get me wrong. I rejoice for Schalit and his family and thank God he is out of harm's way, even if I disagree with the price that was paid for his release. Furthermore, if Schalit's freedom prompts us all to think more deeply about the sanctity of life and to take corrective action, it might just ensure a better future not only for missing soldiers, but for society as well.
So instead of merely patting ourselves on the back and moving on, let's seize this opportunity to truly recommit ourselves to upholding and safeguarding life, whether on the roads, in the hospitals or in our homes.