“Would you be able to…”
The host of a meal that I attended during Rosh HaShanah this year added his own twist to the standard introduction rounds. “Go around the table and I want everyone to say your name, where you’re from, and whether or not you would have been able to sacrifice your only son on G-d’s altar.”
I’ve gotten used to being asked tough questions at a Shabbos or Yom Tov table, and sometimes even being forced into an impromptu shpiel on this weeks Torah portion (i.e. “D’var Torah”), but even looking back this question still catches me off-guard. What’s the “right answer” here?
Yes? — How could you be so heartless?!
No? — What, you don’t believe that everything Hashem does is for the best?!
I don’t know? — You’re learning Torah full-time, how could you not know the answer to a simple yes or no question?!
As the question worked it’s way around the table, I entered a mild state of panic. I was being coerced into exposing my very principles in front of a room full of 65 other people (it was a huge house), and I had no idea what answer would fly out of my open mouth when it was my turn. When the spotlight was finally shining on me and I was blinded like a deer in headlights, I heard someone that sounded a lot like me answer, “Hi, my name is Rucheli, I’m from Florida, and I hope that I would have the strength to do whatever Hashem asks of me in my life.” I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a dry, safe answer… Well done, subconsciousness, well done. Another moral disaster was averted and the rest of the High Holidays carried on without incident.
Setting the Stage
Both fortunately and unfortunately, when you are spending time in an institute of higher Torah learning (yeshiva or seminary, etc), the things that bother you are never allowed to fall to the wayside and be buried by the passing sands of time. And while I can’t speak for other places, the teachers here at Mayanot are incredibly adept at digging out the skeletons of our spiritual closets and making us examine every aspect of our lives from the viewpoint of Torah and Mitzvot.
Clearly, my attempt at forgetting my Rosh HaShanah dilemma was a hopelessly futile one. I should have known that from the get-go. What I couldn’t have predicted was that this terrifying question of “would you be able to…” would actually resurface in a contemproary Halachla class. The fact that the binding of Isaac ended up being directly related to a class on modern-day rulings on medical ethics in Torah completely blew my mind, but I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Let’s set the stage first… The play is Contemporary Halacha, a night class with all learning levels combined. This particular act is about modern medicine, and the scene is medical “donations.” The star of the show is our Rabbi, and we are his captive yet inquisitively interactive audience. There are three plot lines that are covered over the course of the show:
- The case of organ donation by a living human being.
- The case of organ donation from someone who has passed on.
- The case of organ donation from someone who is neither fully alive nor fully dead. (Brain-dead)
Interestingly enough, it was actually the plot that was supposed to be the most simple that really caught my attention. Within the realm of organ donation from a living being, there are also a few categories… Giving blood, donating bone marrow, and donating an actual organ, like a kidney or part of your liver. Each of those categories gets progressively more serious because the risk to the donor increases as you continue on down the line, but the rules are generally the same. In any of the levels of live organ donation, the risks that are present (however small they might be for something like giving blood) make the mitzvah a non-obligatory one. The donor must be a halachic adult, meaning over Bar/Bat Mitzvah age (13 for boys, 12 for girls), the donor must willingly volunteer, and the donor cannot be placing him/her-self under a large amount of risk. Assuming those conditions are met, donating to save a life is one of the greatest opportunities to serve Hashem, since He is ultimately the sustainer of all life and we are given the chance to help him in that task. In fact, this concept of saving a life, or Pikuach Nefesh in Hebrew, is so important that it is given priority over almost every single commandment in the Torah… This means if you must violate Shabbat to save a life, do it, Pikuach Nefesh.***
Pikuach Nefesh vs. Kibud Av va-Em
Up until this point everything is interesting, but it makes sense… and then our Rabbi threw in the line that set off alarms in almost every girl in the class. In cases of Pikuach Nefesh, if two people need to be saved and one is a Jew and the other is a non-Jew, you have to save the Jew first. As a whole, this is hard to swallow. Why the degradation of non-Jews, isn’t that egotistical of us? Granted, there are soooo many discussions on this in the commentaries and so many qualifications and stipulations, but essentially, if all things are equal, you’re supposed to save the Jew first. We were all unsettled, but there was something that sprung into my head that almost knocked me off my chair. I had to get it out, and when I did the entire class went into an uproar.
My dad isn’t Jewish…
Are you actually telling us that if my dad (G-d forbid) and a random Jew both needed saving, and I could only save one of them (G-d forbid) that Hashem wants me to save the random Jew first?!? Are you KIDDING ME?
In a baalat teshuvah seminary, you know for a fact that many of the girls have fathers who aren’t Jewish. All of us were shocked and angry and frustrated and overwhelmed at the same time. This didn’t make sense, it couldn’t actually mean that, Hashem couldn’t actually expect that of us!
Yet, that is the Halacha.
Remember also that this was coming to the surface during a class on organ donation. So the logical progression of thought would lead to the fact that if you decide you’re going to give up your kidney for your non-Jewish family member and the person down the hall also needs a kidney and she is Jewish… you get the idea. It’s absolutely infuriating. It’s a good thing that the class ended shortly afterwards because I was not paying attention at all for the last 10 minutes of it. I was on a completely different plane, having a hypothetical argument with G-d, yelling at Him and not getting any answers back.
Needless to say, as soon as the class ended, I approached the Rabbi and did my best to hold back the river of tears building up as I asked him to please explain how this could possible make any sense. The good news is that the organ donation part didn’t hold up, I was able to find a hole in that wall and bring the argument tumbling down. If it is not an obligatory mitzvah, if it is OUR CHOICE in the first place whether or not to give up our own kidney for someone, than there is no way that we lose the choice of who to give it to. The Rabbi agreed…. good, that’s one thing taken care of.
There was still an epic problem looming overhead though. G-d forbid, if two people have a heart attack and both need saving, and one is Jewish and the other is a not-Jewish family member, and you have one spot in your car to drive them to the hospital… you guessed it, take the Jew first. Does anyone else see how incredibly twisted this is?! What about Kibud Av va-Em, the fifth of the Ten Commandments, which requires us to honor our father and mother?! How does this come into play?
No answers. Life overrides that commandment too, and in cases of Pikuach Nefesh, the Jew comes first. I left that class absolutely miserable, and I still start crying if I actually take a minute to think about it.
The Reverse Akeidah
When Abraham went through his ten tests at the hand of G-d, the last one was (of course) the most ridiculous and difficult of them all. Sacrificing your own life is one thing, but sacrificing the life of someone you love, a family member, and your only son is something else entirely. And Abraham did it.
And they came to the place of which God had spoken to him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar upon the wood.
This is the Akeidah, the binding, that we read about on Rosh HaShanah. This was what my dinner host had asked all of us that evening, “would you be able to…?” And I had said that I hoped so.
What I learned in Halacha class is that my answer should have been an emphatic, immediate, and unequivocal NO.
While the cases that we studied in class were far-fetched “what if”s, they struck entirely too close to home. IF two people happen to have heart attacks (G-d forbid) and IF you were there and IF you were the only one that could help them and IF you only had the ability to help one of them not both and IF one happened to be Jewish and one wasn’t, then yes, this would be the case. And IF the non-Jewish one happened to be (G-d forbid) your father, then this would be the most absolutely horrifying piece of Jewish law in the history of the world.
It would literally be a reversed Akeidah.
There’s no pretty way to deal with this. When it comes to situations like this, we have to trust the laws of probability that all of those IFs will never line up. And we have to trust Hashem that He will never put us in a situation like this. Because although Abraham may have passed, I would epically fail.
And you know what? I think Hashem would understand.
Please note that the ravs of our time have decided that this entire scenario does not apply to one who’s profession is saving lives. A doctor at a hospital is by no means required to save the Jew first if the non-Jew has a greater chance of survival, is in more dire need, etc. There are entire treatises written up on the details of Halacha in modern medicine by ones who are much more qualified that I am. As always, please consult a competent Rabbi with any questions.
*** Please read this article about violating Shabbat for Pikuach Nefesh and seek advice from a competent Rabbi if you have any questions! http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1113745/jewish/Saving-Lives-on-Shabbat.htm