How Precious is life?
Parshas Acharei Mos
By: Rabbi Yitchok Aryeh Strimber
A verse in this week’s Torah reading teaches us the level of priority which the Torah gives to our lives. As the verse says (18:5), “And thy shall keep My laws and My orders that a person should do in order to live by them.” The Talmud interprets a hidden meaning in these words: “The laws of the Torah were given to us to live by and not to “die” by.” In other words, the life of a person takes precedence over adhering to the laws proscribed by the Torah which are to be followed in ordinary situations. As per the view of the Torah, the responsibility of preserving one’s life or another person’s life overrides practically everything else, even if it means violating its laws (with few and uncommon exceptions.)
Rabbi Avigdor Miller draws an interesting contrast, which demonstrates the extent of preciousness that the Torah attributes to one’s life. If a fire were to break out on the Sabbath, God forbid, and the only way to save a Torah scroll from being consumed by the flames is by violating the laws of the Sabbath, it is forbidden to do so. On the other hand, if there is any risk of someone’s life being lost, one is obligated to do everything possible to save that person’s life, even if it means violating numerous prohibitions. Hence, there could be a most holy Torah scroll left, unfortunately, to be destroyed, while even a (seemingly) simple person, who could also be terminally ill and has limited ability to function, must be saved at all costs. As sacred as the Torah scroll may be, the most sacred Jewish artifact, it does not come close to the sanctity of the life of a single Jew.
During the Holocaust, Rabbi Aharon Kotler worked tirelessly to save as many Jewish souls as possible from being killed by the Nazis, and spared no resources available to him to accomplish his goal. Despite being a leading authority for American Jewry at the time, he focused his energies on saving his Jewish brethren who were trapped in Europe and made this his priority. In order to maximize the success of his rescue mission, Rabbi Kotler did not hesitate to collaborate with unsavory figures in efforts to achieve this goal. One particularly unique episode stands out among the rest. Word got to his rescue team, that there were twenty four young men trapped in Italy, who were at risk of being deported to Poland, and their lives were in looming danger. The most efficient way available to insure a timely rescue of these people was to enlist the Italian
Mafia for its assistance. Contacts were made, and the meeting between Rabbi Kotler and the Mafia head – Joe Othello, was arranged. After Rabbi Kotler related the plight of those whom they were desperate to save, Joe asked the Rabbi, “Do you want them to come by boat or plane?” To which Rabbi Kotler responded, “As quick as possible.” After conferring briefly with his guards, Othello turned to the Rabbi and said, “Okay, today is Wednesday, they’ll be here by Friday.”
When Rabbi Kotler was questioned about his practice of cooperating with unethical characters in his rescue mission, he was undeterred and answered forcefully, “I would prostrate myself before the pope himself [to beg him] to save even the fingernail of a Jewish child!” (This view is in sharp contrast to that of some other Jews at the time, who did not follow Torah principles, and favored their political agendas at the expense of their brethren being slaughtered.)
We all naturally feel that human life is very important. But why is it truly so important in the Torah’s view? Surely it is not because God has His mind set on us utilizing our lives to devour as many chickens and French fries as we possibly can.
God has a mission for each of us to fulfill in achieving greatness. Every moment there are constructive actions which a person can perform in achieving greatness. Even with our minds alone, we can achieve great things by thinking proper thoughts, such as contemplating God’s will or reinforcing our connection to Him. Just by living and holding ourselves to be servants of God in loyalty is an accomplishment of greatness on its own right. When we realize the awesome greatness that could be accomplished with every second of one’s life, it is no wonder that the Torah puts the life of a person before anything else. The only question remaining is: How much do we value our own lives? Do we view our own lives with the same respect as the Torah, with the vision of the boundless greatness we could accomplish with every moment of our lives