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Rosh Hashanah 5781

09/19/2020 11:41:02 AM


Rabbi Bennett Blum


This drash is dedicated to two people.  First, to my wife, Miriam, who celebrated her 60th birthday yesterday.  Second to my mother who was born of Rosh Hashana and died on Sukkot.  One of her favorite aphorisms was “Where there is Life, there is Hope.”  This drasha is given in her memory and l’ilui nishamat  - Chaya Feiga Dina bat Devorah v’Rachmiel.


I want to tell you about a construction project.  It was run individuals who were dedicated to fiscal responsibility.  They were so acutely attuned to the economics of the project that when building materials needed to be replaced, they bewailed the delay.  At the same time, if a worker was injured or died, he was replaced without delay or concern.  The project was called the Migdal Bavel – or in English, The Tower of Babel.  It was the centerpiece of a massive national project ordered by the then most-powerful ruler on Earth, a man named Nimrod.  He was the great-grandson of Noah.  According to Bereshit (Genesis) and Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (ch. 24), this Nimrod ordered it built to associate his name with the Tower and to make his people feel that they would become “great.”   His actual words – “V’Niknah lanu shem gadol” – literally, “and we will buy (or acquire) a great reputation/name for ourselves.”  His drive for power and self-aggrandizement came with a disdain for the value of life, a disdain that was reflected in the people charged with carrying out his wishes.  The primary, or only, value of a person lay in his or her immediate social utility.  If the person could not work, he or she no longer had value and therefore could be replaced without further care or consideration.  Thus far, this is the story in Torah and ancient midrash.  It became a template for many rulers throughout time.


The belief that economic or social utility defines a person’s value was accepted by many societies outside of Judaism.  A classic work on ethics and social responsibility by Cicero, De Officiis (Book 3), summarizes the work of the Stoic philosopher Hecaton of Rhodes.  Some of the relevant conclusions:


  1. If two people grab ahold of a plank from a sinking ship, and it cannot support both them, the one who is more valuable to his country should be allowed to survive.  The other should die.


  1. If an owner had to throw some of his cargo overboard in a storm, he should prefer to save a high-priced horse over a so-called “cheap and worthless” slave.


  1. If the price of food becomes too high, an owner has the right to stop feeding his slaves/workers.


The central point was that the social utility, or the expedient value, of a person should be the overwhelming consideration.  In Hecaton’s philosophy, people should be thought of as commodities and medical or care decisions should be reduced to simple cost-benefit analysis.  Human feeling is not relevant.  The same philosophy is used today.  To use the current jargon – it is a claim that both Livelihood and the whims of a community are not merely important but are more important than Lives.  


Our tradition takes a different approach.  To cite one example:  We all know the Talmudic story of two men in the wilderness (Bava Metzia 62A).  One of them has a container of water, but only enough for one of them to survive.  One commentator, Ben Peturah, says they should both drink rather than one should live but have to watch the other die.  There is a value in not watching someone suffer and die in order that you can live.  Rabbi Akiva rules differently, saying that the owner of the water should live.  Saving a life is more important.  And without directly citing it, Rabbi Akiva hints at other Talmudic principles.  First, that generally we are not allowed to martyr ourselves except in very rare circumstances.  Second, that we do not own our bodies.  We are caretakers of bodies that belong to God and are lent to us.  This means we do not have the right to do whatever we want with our bodies.  For example, we are forbidden to voluntarily endanger our lives.  In this respect, Judaism is more restrictive of individual rights and autonomy than most Western cultures.  For these reasons and others, Rabbi Akiva’s position became part of normative Judaism.  Also, neither Rabbi Akiva nor Ben Peturah, nor the Talmud itself, discusses anything about the two people.  There are no details about who they are or what they represent - not their wealth, not their age, not their fame, not their accomplishments.  Rabbi Akiva’s conclusion about the inherent value of life leads to many complex discussions, but none of these debates consider people as commodities in any respect.  


In addition, the Talmud also requires a bystander to spend money in order to save a life (Sanhedrin 73A).  Citing the lines “do not stand by the blood of your friend (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:16) and “you shall return it to him” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:2) regarding returning a lost object, the Talmud explicitly requires that if a bystander see someone’s life in danger, he must do what he can to save him/her.  If he cannot save the person himself, he is obligated to pay someone else to save them.  If afterwards the rescued person can repay the costs, then he must do so; however, if he cannot repay, the bystander is still obligated even if he knows he will never recoup the losses.  The only debate is how much does he need to pay.  The minimum stated in Rabbinic discussions is 20% of the bystander’s wealth (see Nishmat Avraham, CM 426:1).  Some say there is no minimum and a bystander must be prepared to spend all his wealth.  The debate on this issue has gone on for centuries, yet none of the numerous Medieval and Modern Rabbinic authorities mention of consideration of the age, accomplishments, worth, social need for, or expedient value of the person in need of rescue (see also “At What Cost Saving Lives,” by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Jewish Law Commentary,  


Returning to the Tower of Babel, it is written that upon seeing the arrogance and disdain for human life, Abraham cursed them.  They, in turn, were dismissive and scorned him.  The midrash says they threw away his words, like mindlessly “throwing a stone on the ground.”  Nonetheless, our tradition supports Abraham’s protests.  Using similar language, there is a well-known line from Psalms (118:22) which is also sung loudly every time we say the prayer Hallel, - “Even maasu habonim, hita l’rosh pina” “The stone rejected by the builders becomes the head of the foundation.”  


The message is simple, yet it is also the most difficult.  Human life is fundamentally more important than any commodity.  All humans.  Young, old, rich, poor, healthy, sick, good or bad.  Decisions regarding life and death should never be simplified to concerns about economic impact.  


Applying this to the Covid-19 pandemic, we still see the ancient clash of ideas.  When the lieutenant governor of Texas proclaimed that the elderly should sacrifice themselves in order to preserve the US economy and lifestyle, he was repeating Hecaton’s philosophy of utilitas, and it struck most of us as horrific and obscene as it was to our ancestors.  It is similar when the anti-mask protestors complain that wearing a mask infringes on their personal comfort or desires.  They seem to feel that their whims are more important than any obligation to others.  Our tradition says the opposite. 


This year, may we be protected from such people and may we have leaders and continue to live in a country that considers the preservation of life to be the most important principle, the beginning of discussions and not a secondary issue.  


I wish you all a year of health, happiness and sweetness.


Shana Tovah U’metukah.  

Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782