Saving Another's Life

“Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger”

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” (Deuteronomy 22:2), all the more so is it a mitzvah to save another persons life. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (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 “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Leviticus 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) “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger”. 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 Am Yisrael 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 the commandment “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” is: To what extent does one need to carry out this obligation in order to fulfill the mitzvah? In other words, what is the halakha (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 “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” 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, not 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-or-death 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. All the 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 Pitchei Tshuva (Chosen Mishpat 426; Mishna Brura 329:19) that one who is overly cautious will eventually find himself in a similar dangerous and life-threatening situation (mida k’neged 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 Am Yisrael 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 (Rabbeinu Yonah, Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 329:8).

The second approach to this question regarding the commandment “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” 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 event, 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 halakha 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 ‘midat chassidut’ (a pious act, but not required), one should be willing to risk his life to rescue another Jew beyond this point, so long as it is clear the rescue operation has a good chance of succeeding.

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 Am Yisrael is obligated to risk his or her life in order to save Eretz Yisrael from its enemies. (See B’tzava K’halkha chapter 15; Tzitz Eliezer 13:100).

Let us conclude by thanking Hashem for witnessing the revealed End of Days in which Eretz Yisrael brings forth its holy fruits, the process of the In-gathering of the Exiles is being realized, and the Land is being settled. All the trials and tribulations that Am Yisrael is facing are just the pain that accompanies the process of acquiring Eretz Yisrael. 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 Eretz Yisrael, and the different roles these matters play in the world. Am Yisrael needs to use all its capabilities to fulfill the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel, as well as to continue to pray to Hashem for a hastening of the Redemption. The words of the Prophets 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 you from afar and your 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, Am Yisrael’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).

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