|The mitzvah of saving a human life|
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THE Torah says, “and one shall live by the commandments,” on which the Talmud comments, “and not die by them.”
The Torah is a living Torah and the life it prescribes is just that: life. Nihilism, suicide, terrorism — even inflicting on oneself a non-fatal wound — have no place in the value scheme of the Torah.
It logically follows that if someone’s life is in danger, it is a mitzvah to try to save that person’s life.
This has many implications:
It is a mitzvah to acquire the expertise to save a person’s life. To be a doctor, a nurse or an EMT is to engage in holy action. It is a mitzvah to consult with a doctor, to save one’s own life.
The laws of the Sabbath are put aside if they hinder the saving of a life.
In the event that an abortion may seem warranted to save the life of the mother, it is a mitzvah to approach such a weighty halachic problem with extreme care and responsibility. The outcome may be saving the life of the mother, or the lives of both mother and child.
Rarely, one person has the opportunity to save many lives. In the event of war, a soldier may save the lives of fellow soldiers or of civilians. Still more rarely, a politician may have the opportunity to stop a genocide and thus save hundreds, thousands or millions of lives.
The truly heroic name here is “Morgenthau.” No name is more associated with the mass rescue of hundreds of thousands of people than the name Morgenthau.
The truly heroic name here is “Borlaug,” the man who saved more lives than anyone else in human history. He eradicated starvation in many parts of the world.
• Torah Study.
A statement of the sages says that Torah study is greater than saving a life. What could this possibly mean? An incident from the life of Rabbi Akiva Eiger illustrates.
Maybe medicine is wrong. Maybe it is a contradiction to faith and trust in G-d. G-d is omnipotent; G-d can do anything. Maybe it is wrong to try to intervene in the natural process. Maybe the right and faithful thing to do is to trust that G-d will heal, and to accept death when He does not heal.
Certain religious philosophies preach this medical pacifism. It is such a strong belief in Oregon that legislators there found it necessary to pass a law saying that a person cannot endanger his relative by refusing appropriate medical care. “Christian Science” teaches medical pacifism.
The Torah teaches the opposite.
G-d charges Jews with improving the world, with partnership with G-d to enhance the Divine purposes. When a physician heals another person, the physician is not contradicting faith in G-d, but demonstrating it.
G-d wants people to learn the healing arts, and to devise new ways to heal.
G-d gives the human being the potential to actualize His purposes. Faith enters the equation as a booster of the efforts to research and to apply the best ways to heal.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was once asked whether it was a contradiction to faith to purchase life insurance. Maybe one should rely on G-d to take care of one’s family after one is gone. No, said Rabbi Feinstein. The element of faith enters after the purchase of the life insurance, trusting that G-d will enable one to pay the premiums.
Every act of training to be, or of applying one’s knowledge as, a medical healer is to “pay the premiums.”
Every medical advance is to “pay the premiums” — sometimes, just to make a person feel better or to donate blood; other times, as in medical research, to save thousands of lives; and still other times, to invent a vaccine that saves millions of lives.
The Torah states that if one hurts someone, one is obligated to pay his medical expenses (Exodus 21:19). Meaning, a person is supposed to consult a doctor to heal himself.
The Torah states, “I am the L-rd your doctor” (Exodus 15:26). Meaning, says one commentator (Da’at Zekenim mi-Ba’alei ha-Tosafot):
“I [the L-rd] enlighten you to take care that you do not get sick, just as a human doctor advises people which foods are harmful, or as a father warns his child to avoid sin that bring illness . . . ”
A medical practitioner has always been in a position of high prestige in the Jewish community because it is life-affirming in the purest sense.
One may supersede the Sabbath laws in order to save a life. This is no big deal unless the Sabbath itself is a big deal.
If one says that it is more important to save a life than to pick up the paper clips on the floor, how important could saving a life be?
The comparison of “more important” to “less important” is nothing unless that which is “less important” is of the highest importance.
Sabbath observance is of the highest importance.
That, and only that, highlights the extreme importance of saving a life.
Sabbath observance is one of only three “signs” in the Torah, the other two being circumcision and tefilin. There are 613 commandments; only three are called “signs.” The Sabbath is one of them.
Sabbath is one of only 36 mitzvot whose violation brings the severest punishment, karet (“excision”). Legal systems measure the relative importance of laws by the punishment for their violation. A life sentence that is imposed for murder, as opposed to probation for petty theft, is an indicator of the importance of murder. The violation of the Sabbath is on that level.
Sabbath is the only holiday in the entire Jewish calendar that is separate from human initiative. One needs to know the first day of the month in order to determine the dates of all of the other Jewish holidays, which fall in the middle of the month. These holidays depend on a human sighting of the New Moon — on human initiative — to determine the first of each month. Only because the Sanhedrin has been disbanded has the procedure of declaring a New Moon via a human sighting been suspended. A fixed calendar is substituted. But philosophically, all Jewish holidays remain dependent on human intervention.
Not so the Sabbath.
It is built into creation. As G-d turns the heavenly spheres, G-d brings the Sabbath. Only G-d.
Yet, this Sabbath — a sign, a potential trigger of karet, a matter of Divine timing — must be violated to save a life.
The central spiritual institution of Judaism, the “palace in time,” is put aside to save a life.
Yes, the life to be saved must be in immediate danger to justify a Sabbath violation, and the person who would violate the Sabbath must be able to thwart the danger to life, again to justify his violation of the Sabbath.
But that happens.
A woman in labor.
A person trapped in rubble.
Life is supreme.
The Sabbath must sometimes be violated.
It is said in the codes of Jewish law that no longer do even the highest rabbinic sages have the authority to rule in capital cases. No beth din, or rabbinical court, may hear a capital case today. The authority of the beth din has diminished since the destruction of the Second Temple and the disbandment of the Sanhedrin.
Funny how the human reality evolves. No more capital cases, true. But life-and-death cases? They abound. They exercise the highest rabbinic sages, even today.
For example, a woman is pregnant. The woman has a medical history that, in the past, has been exacerbated to the point of danger to her life when she is expecting. The purpose here is not to draw the exact halachic guidelines, which are specific to individual cases, that allow or demand an abortion. But the principal is clear: Jewish law rules on life-and-death cases, even today.
Learned rabbis sit with learned doctors, who are called in by observant couples facing a terrible decision, to ponder the appropriate application of the medicine and of the Halachah.
The matter is fraught with tension and almost unbearable weight because of the essential teaching of Judaism: life.
The goal is to save the mother’s life and to save the child’s. Very rarely, medical reality dictates that a choice must be made, in which case the mother’s life takes precedent. The point remains: life. And one shall live by the commandments.
If life is the supreme value, and saving a life the supreme mitzvah, then the supreme anti-value is genocide. The worst evil is mass murder. The worst stigma is to be a murderer. The sharpest condemnation is to call someone a murderer.
And the highest of the high is to stop mass murder.
President Clinton failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
President Nixon failed to stop the genocide in Cambodia.