The Torah portion for the week the Chronicle is published is parashat Vayeira and it is one of my favorites and indeed one of my sermons for Yom Kippur this year, focused on the word that titles the parasha: vayeira.
This year for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, I focused my teaching on ways that we as humans connect and I was particularly interested in all of the words in the TaNaKh that have to do with seeing (1299) and hearing (1159) and how we use our senses. We need to open up our eyes and see and open our ears to hear so that we can intentionally connect our hearts and minds and be in relationship with everything: our fellow humans, the rest of God’s creation, God and our own selves. I was going to share some of that with you for this piece. Then, something occurred a little more than 24 hours after the last shofar sounded that compelled me to offer something else, and that is the obligation of Pikuach Nefesh, which literally means “opening up for a life,” but is understood in Jewish tradition to mean the obligation to save a life.
The concept of Pikuach Nefesh is explained in Mishnah Yoma 8: 6 -7 and in the Babylonian Talmud 83a-85b and its profound and radical notion is, that when a life is threatened, the other commandments are “pushed aside” are suspended, until the person who is in danger whether from illness or accident recovers. Mishnah 8:7 says, “If debris falls and it is unknown whether any person is buried [under it] or not; or whether he is dead or alive, or whether he is a gentile or a Jew, we remove the debris from him on the Sabbath; if he be found alive, we extricate him, but if he is dead, we leave him.”
Why do I say this is radical? Because saving lives is not a commandment. It is not explicitly stated in the Torah and yet this concept of Pikuach Nefesh supersedes one of the “big ten”: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it sanctified.” One proof text, one foundation for this idea comes from Vayikra, Leviticus 18:5 “You shall observe My statutes and My laws, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord.” Therefore the mishnah and following gemara understand that one must be alive in order to do the commandments and the tradition says through the Talmud and the halachic codes such as Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Arukh; it is better to transgress one Shabbat in order to live, so that future Shabbatot can be observed!
This is a classic example of the way Jewish tradition contends with competing values. Jewish tradition holds the observation of Shabbat as one of its highest ideals, but when the lives of people are at stake, if there were persons Jewish or not in a situation of life-threatening danger, Shabbat gets pushed aside. Shabbat is not forsaken. When health has been achieved Shabbat returns to its paramount importance. I believe that the way Jewish tradition thinks about and then addresses competing values, which have life and death implications, might prove useful to Americans as once again, there has been a single person who amassed the arsenal of a combat unit and was able to shoot thousands of rounds of ammunition in less than 15 minutes. He killed 58 people and wounded 500 more.
The challenge Americans have is in essence the challenge that Judaism has faced countless times over the span of 4,000 years or so; how do we reconcile legislation passed in an earlier time period which could not have anticipated technologies and advances in the present when that old legislation creates dangerous situations? Pikuach Nefesh and its accommodations are a good example: The Torah is the original document taught that Shabbat is “special,” sanctified and God created it. Additionally, we only learn from Torah that Shabbat should be remembered, observed and if you light a fire in your neighborhood on Shabbat, you should be killed. By the time of the Mishnah, the codified oral Torah, we can see that as the tradition worked out how to actualize the remembering, observing and the not lighting fires on Shabbat, the conflict in values became very apparent and the Mishnah clearly identifies it. If we observe Shabbat by not doing the work of digging and carrying and a building collapses on Shabbat, should we just stand idly by as the screams from trapped people are heard? Or maybe nobody is screaming, but it is entirely possible that there could be people trapped in the rubble, so what do we do? It is Shabbat; it is in the Torah.
Yet the Torah says about the commandments, “live by them,” which you cannot do if you are dead. So we develop a system that says examine your values, if keeping one of them would prevent all the rest from occurring it is better to transgress one, so that all can be observed in the future. So what do we do, we dig through the rubble and we carry on Shabbat in order to save life.
Is this not the conflict of values that we are having in America right now? Our country was based on the concept of liberty and democracy. We are a nation that is governed by its people and our Declaration of Independence says all people are guaranteed the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Sadly, I could give many examples of how that phrase has also been a work in process rather than an accomplished goal; nevertheless, it is a foundational value of American society. When the forefathers of this country won our independence, rule of law had to be established and a Constitution was written as a founding document to actuate the promise of the Declaration. However our founders and all who have come after them have found need from time to time to clarify, expand or constrict those rights and in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, written in 1791, the people of the United States were given the right to bear arms, the right to own guns.
Two hundred and twenty-six years later, that right to own guns has proven to mean that any single person, as we have seen in Las Vegas, cannot only own a gun, perhaps for the protection of one’s property, or a shotgun so one could hunt, 226 years later it means anybody with money can assemble for themselves enough automatic weaponry to be a one man army, capable of killing and maiming almost 600 people whose threat to the shooter was non-existent, in less time than it takes to bake cookies.
The word tragedy gets used so much in this ever increasing horror, and it is certainly a tragedy for the family and friends of those killed and injured, but these events are actually murders and they are happening because we have these founding documents that in modernity are creating competing values: the right to life, to be able to be out in life without fearing a military assault by one man, with the right of liberty, the liberty to become a small army all by yourself in order to kill as many people as possible.
This, however, is not an unresolvable conflict, indeed the thinking behind Pikuach Nefesh could be utilized; limit the scope of one in order to achieve the other. Respect the right for people to own a hand gun or a rifle but make sure all arms holders have a background check and are on a registry, restrict people who should not have access to weapons, and stop selling weapons of war, on the pretense that they are for “fun” or self-defense or hunting when clearly their only purpose is to hurt and kill hundreds of people, negating their rights to be alive.
Parashat Vayeira begins with, “And God appeared,” because Abraham had his eyes open and we too, the American Jews and all Americans, must open our eyes and do the work to end this plague on our country and all of us. Call your elected representatives and learn more about organizations such as WAVE, The Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort: WaveedFund.org. There is a way to both have liberties and have safer lives, but we must act for that to happen.
Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum is rabbi educator with Congregation Shalom of Fox Point. The views expressed in this piece are her own.