From time to time you and I travel by airplane. While announcing the emergency protocol, flight attendants remind us to place the oxygen mask upon our own faces before helping other people. I have never been comfortable hearing this instruction. My first response, as a husband and a father, would be to care for my wife and my children prior to myself. I understand the logic of the flight announcement; let everyone take care of himself or herself with the majority of the passengers being safe and flight attendants would presumably be able to tend to the needs of as many as possible. Logically, the announcement makes sense; emotionally, it very much misses the mark.
It reminds me of short story shared in the Talmud. Imagine two men walking in the desert. One man has a flask of water and it is apparent that the water is sufficient for only one person. Shall the man with the water share his limited water with the other person in which case both will die? (Bava Metzia 62a).
It is a terrifying quandary. None of us would wish to be in such a situation. A sage by the name of Ben Ptorah taught that the water should be shared. Undoubtedly, Ben Ptorah knew the Jewish perspective of the importance of one life, any life, every life. Perhaps his thinking was that both people deserve at least some chance of survival- even if both will ultimately perish. One generation later the well-known teacher Rabbi Akiva disagreed and taught that the man with a bottle has the right and perhaps even the duty to drink the water, knowing his colleague would certainly die. Even though it is absolutely forbidden to take someone else’s life, I am not required to sacrifice my own life to save someone else. My life is just as important as his. I wonder if Rabbi Akiva developed his own emergency protocol for the sake of preserving one life just as flight attendants are trained to do.
A verse from this week’s Parshah is at the center of this Talmudic discussion “If or when your brother sinks low (into poverty) and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him and he shall live beside you.”(Lev. 25:35). It’s a safe bet that the original Torah verse was directing each of us to care for neighbors who had no safety net, neighbors without traveling companion and perhaps no attendants nearby. The crux of the verse is to care for someone in need and to make him a part of our own lives. Financial support comes first but the follow-up to caring for someone is to offer emotional support and stability (‘and he shall live beside you.’)
1,000 years after the Torah, the Sages of the Talmud reinterpreted the verse and added a layer of meaning; the ‘lifeboat dilemma’. Leave it to our Sages to delve deeply into the meaning of every word of Torah.
For us, in our world, we, too, must reinterpret Torah to our needs. May we continue to learn and may we grow in our abilities to safeguard ourselves and each other. And may we never be faced with having to choose whom we help at the expense of another.