“Thou shall not stand aside when mischief befalls your neighbor”
The Torah commands one to save someone who is in danger. As the Torah
also obligates one to return lost items to a neighbor “and you shall
return it to him” (Dvarim 22:2), even more so is it a mitzvah to save
another persons life. The Talmud in Sanhedrim (73a) asks a question
“From where do we know that if your neighbor is drowning, or some wild
beast is about to devour him, or he is about to be murdered by bandits
that one is obligated to save him? The Torah says “Neither shall you
stand aside when mischief befalls your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16).
The mitzvah of “Loving your neighbor as you love yourself” was
considered by Rabbi Akiva to be a fundamental principle in the Torah
because it is the basis for good relations between one another and
promotes a healthy society. In addition to this mitzvah the Torah
delineates two other mitzvoth pertaining to human relations: 1)”and
you shall return it to him” and 2)”Thou shall not stand aside when
mischief befalls your neighbor.” It is not enough for one to smile at
his neighbor and declare one’s good feelings toward him, the Torah
demands that one take this relationship a step further and assume a
concrete responsibility for his neighbor’s welfare.
Therefore, if a Jew is in mortal danger it is forbidden to stand aside
and be apathetic, rather one needs to take every possible action
necessary in order to save his life. If each Jew would act in this way
and all of the Jewish nation would feel a mutual dependence on and
responsibility for one another, the nation would subsequently be
better able to deal with the dangers it encounters from its enemies.
The goal of a united Jewish state would then be more easily
established which would provide the basis for a more perfect world, as
the prophets envisioned, and for the ultimate redemption.
Does The Rescuer Need To Endanger His Life?
An important question concerning “Thou shall not stand aside when
mischief befalls your neighbor” is: To what extent does one need to
carry out this obligation in order to fulfill the mitzvah? In other
words, what is the halacha (Jewish law) in regards to putting oneself
in danger in order to save the life of another person? Does the
mitzvah only apply when there is no danger to one’s own life? If, for
example, a person should see his friend drowning in the river and it
is clear to him that by trying to save his friend he will probably
drown himself, is he obligated to try to save him anyway?
There are two approaches to this question. The first approach includes
those who feel that the mitzvah “Thou shall not stand aside when
mischief befalls your neighbor” is the same as all the rest of the
mitzvoth in the Torah in that a Jew is meant to live by the Torah and
its mitzvoth and not to die by them. It, therefore, follows that just
as one need not endanger himself in order to fulfill other mitzvoth,
one is also not obligated to risk his life in order to save another
person’s life. However, it is clear that one should not be overly
cautious with this mitzvah at a time when someone else is in a life
threatening situation. Just as one is often willing to take calculated
risks for the sake of one’s profession or in order to make a living,
one should take some risk to save a fellow Jew. Some jobs require one
to climb to great heights, while others need to sail to the far seas
or handle dangerous substances. Still others will take small risks to
save their possessions from a fire. Even more so is it required to
take such risks with one’s life when attempting to save another from a
life threatening situation. The tractate in Sanhedrin (73a) confirms
that one should be willing to endanger himself to some extent in order
to save another’s life, by doing such acts as jumping in a river to
save someone who is drowning, or warding off wild predators or
bandits, even though all of these acts involve some form of danger.
The idea of not being too cautious with this mitzvah is carried even
further as it is stated in the Petchei Tshuva (Chosen Mishpat 426,
Mishne Brura 329:19) that one who is overly cautious will eventually
find himself in a similar dangerous and life threatening situation
(‘mida kneged mida’) with nobody willing to take even a small risk to
save him. A person is not obligated, however, to save his fellow Jew
if it puts him in great and possibly even mortal danger, for the
mitzvoth of the Torah are for the Jewish nation to “live by them.” A
great danger is defined as a situation where a normal person would not
be willing to risk his life, even to save all his possessions (Rabbinu
Yonah, Schulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 329:8).
The second approach to this question regarding “Thou shall not stand
aside when mischief befalls your neighbor” regards this mitzvah to be
different from the rest of the mitzvoth because it involves saving a
human life. It therefore obligates taking great risks and entering
into great danger in order to rescue another person from sure death.
This obligation would apply regardless of whether or not a normal
person would take great risks upon himself or enter into great danger
in order to save all of his possessions. For, in any case, if it is
necessary to put one’s life in danger to save a fellow Jew, one must
do so. However, the conditions for endangering one’s life for the sake
of saving another depends on if the chances are good that the rescue
will be successful and both will live. If, however, there is only a
fifty percent chance that both will live then one is not obligated to
save a fellow Jew’s life (Beit Yosef Choshen Mishpat 426).
According to the halacha that was determined for this mitzvah, one is
only required to risk his life in as much as any normal person would
do so in order to rescue his possessions. However, according to the
attributes in the performance of acts of kindness one should risk his
life to rescue another Jew if there is more than a fifty percent
chance he will succeed.
These opinions and laws relate to saving an individual’s life.
However, if the community is in great peril, one should not make these
considerations. In order to be victorious over the enemy one may need
to sacrifice one’s life regardless of the chance of success or failure
that is involved. At times, the individual is required to put his life
in great danger for the sake of the greater public’s well being. This
mitzvah is performed in times of war when each individual of the
Jewish nation is obligated to risk his or her life in order to save
the land of Israel from its enemies. (see “Btzava Kihalcha”, chap. 15,
Tzizt Eliezer 13:100).
Let us conclude by thanking God that we are witnessing the revealed
end of days in which the land of Israel brings forth its holy fruits,
the process of the ingathering of the exiles is being realized and the
land is being settled. All the trials and tribulations that the Jewish
nation is facing are just the pain that accompanies the process of
acquiring the land of Israel. Such troubles and pains help purify the
nation in reaching its ultimate goal of establishing a complete Jewish
existence in the holy land. Therefore, we need to learn and delve into
matters concerning the land of Israel and the different roles these
matters play in the world. The Jewish nation needs to use all its
capabilities to fulfill the mitzvah of settling the land of Israel as
well as to continue to pray to God for a hastening of the redemption.
The prophecy will then be fulfilled: “For, lo, days are coming, says
the Lord, when I will bring back the captivity of my people Yisrael
and Yehuda, says the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the Land
that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it” (Jeremiah
30:3). “Therefore fear thou not, Oh my servant Yaakov says the Lord;
neither be dismayed , Oh Yisrael: for lo I will save thee from afar
and thy seed from the land of their captivity and Yaakov shall return,
and shall be quiet and be at ease, and none shall make him afraid
(Jeremiah 30,10). Thus, the Jewish nation’s true hidden nature will be
revealed, as it says: “Thy people shall be all righteous: they shall
inherit the land for ever.” (Isaiah 60:21).