The text of the baraita [referred to above in the Gemara — please see the previous edition of TMT #42]: Whence do we know that if one sees his brethren drowning in a river, or a wild beast mauling him, or bandits coming upon him, that he is obligated to save him? Scripture teaches: Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).
But is it derived from this source? [Rather] it is derived from this baraita: Whence do we know that a lost body [must be returned to its owner]? Scripture teaches, and you shall return it to him (Deuteronomy 22:2).
If [we learn the obligation to save someone’s life] from there (i.e., Deuteronomy 22:2), I would have said that this applies to the [rescuer] himself. But concerning hiring someone to rescue [the endangered person], I would say: No [this is not required]. Thus this [Leviticus 19:16] informs us [of the obligation to hire someone to conduct the rescue].
The summer after I turned 15, I took a “Senior Life Saving Course” at a girls’ camp, along with a dozen counselors. The instructors solemnly impressed upon us the obligation to use the skills we were learning if ever the occasion resulted. Knowing how to save someone imposed the obligation to do so. At the time, I probably weighed 100 pounds dripping wet, and the head lifeguard more than 250 pounds. I knew I would have to swim him in for my final test—and I knew I couldn’t because my arm wouldn’t stretch even halfway across his chest. When test day arrived, he looked at me and said, “It’s pointless for you to try to swim me in. You can take your test with Mike”—the hot, 20-something assistant lifeguard. I dutifully complied, the dozen counselors shooting me jealous looks.
In this installment of Talmud’s conversation about one’s obligation to save other people from imminent threats to their life, Gemara shines the spotlight on a comment raised earlier. The Rabbis had said that Leviticus 19:16 (Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor) teaches the din rodef, the law that obligates one to preemptively kill someone who is in pursuit of another person with intent to kill them. The Gemara questioned the use of the verse, saying that we need Leviticus 19:16 to teach the obligation to save the life of someone in other situations of danger, and provided three examples that are repeated in our passage: drowning, wild beast, and bandits. If the Leviticus 19:16 teaches us the obligation to save people whose lives are endangered by situations such as these, then it would not be available to teach the din rodef. For the rabbis, each verse teaches one thing. But given that the Rabbis resolved the din rodef by using a kal va’chomer argument (please see TMT #42 where this is explained), we might well wonder why the Rabbis return to seek justification for saving people in life-threatening situations. What else do they have in mind?
The Rabbis quote a baraita (early rabbinic teaching that is not included in the Mishnah) that teaches the obligation to save someone’s whose life is endangered on the basis Leviticus 19:16. But then they bring an additional baraita that derives this obligation from Deuteronomy 22:2, which in context concerns the obligation to return lost property that you have found: If you see your brethren’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your brethren. If your brethren does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your brethren claims it; and you shall return it to him (Deuteronomy 22:1-2). The baraita quotes only the last phrase of verse 2, which repeats what we were told in the previous verse. Why do we need it? How does this verse apply to saving a life? The Rabbis read it as saying that when you save someone from imminent danger, you “return” their life to them.
The Rabbis have now laid the ground for the lesson they want to draw from all this: If we were to derive the obligation to save a life from the redundancy in Deuteronomy 22:2 alone, it would apply to my physical obligation to save life. But we still have Leviticus 19:16 available (thanks to the kal va’chomer that covered the din rodef), and this—the Rabbis tell us—teaches us that if we are physically unable to save someone, we are still obligated to do what we can, for example, by hiring someone to do what we physically cannot. We not only must take a risk when we are capable of saving someone, but also expend our resources.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Deuteronomy 22:2 continues with a warning “you must not remain indifferent.” The Hebrew says, more literally, “you must not hide yourself.” In what ways do we hide ourselves so can avoid the needs and suffering of others?
- What are the dangers of indifference. Extending the notion of indifference from the individual to society, the British parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Tim Holden, former U.S. Representative (Pennsylvania) has said: “The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction.” What are the moral implications of this claim for us vis-a-vis the many places around the globe where people are endangered?
- The Life Saving class instructed us that if we were unable to rescue someone, we were obligated to enlist the help of others. Does this sound like Talmud’s rules? Further, we learned in class that now that we knew how to rescue someone, it was our obligation to do so when needed. What talents or knowledge do you have that your feel obligates you?