|What if there’s only enough penicillin for one person but there are a few people in the hospital who need it? What criterion should the doctor use in making a decision? The answer is found in this week’s Parsha.|
You are standing today, all of you, before G-d: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers—every person of Israel; your small children, your women and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)
Who was present? Elders, Kohanim(Priests), Levi’im (Levites), and tribal heads (and centuries later a King). Although there was a hierarchy in the ancient Temple, (involving a Kohen, Levi, King), Moses said, ”You are standing before G-d.” That means, ALL of you are standing before G-d without regard for distinction or classification. When the entire Jewish nation stood together, if one person had more distinction than another, it was an earned distinction, not lineage. That means that even though certain religious rituals must to be carried out by people who were born into a particular tribe, their lineage has absolutely no significance when they are standing with the rest of the Jewish nation. When we are together, we are equals. This idea has ramifications in Judaism’s system of values.
If a person is offered the following choice: Either kill him or we will kill you.” Even though you have the ability to save your own life, a Jew is required to choose death rather than murder. The Talmud reasons, ”Who says your blood is redder than his? Perhaps the blood of the other person (whom you were ordered to kill) is redder than yours.” In simple terms, that means that a you have no right to suppose that your life is of greater value than his.
Imagine the following scenario. A philanthropist and pillar of the community is ordered, under the threat of death, to kill a vagrant or degenerate person who is a burden to the community? According to Jewish law he must accept martyrdom rather than murder. It seems obvious that the philanthropist is more valuable to the community than someone who is a burden to it. In every community there appear to be people whose existence is clearly more valuable than others. But this is only true as it concerns our physical existence because it is how our human minds perceive a situation. However, we have no knowledge of the Almighty’s barometer of how He evaluates people.
Let’s return to the question of limited penicillin. Earlier in the 20th century, when penicillin was in limited supply, this question was actually posed to one of the great authorities of the day, Rav Moshe Feinstein. He answered that the doctor must give it to the first patient he encounters who needs it. He may not judge which of the people is more deserving to be treated.
Even though penicillin is in abundance today and fortunately this question is no longer relevant, his answer is. Livers and kidneys for transplant are scarce; should available organs be given to people who are considered to be of the greatest value to the community? No, according to Rav Feinstein, whose ruling still applies. There may be medical factors which may enter into a decision, but not considerations of personal human value. [It is fascinating to note that thousands of miles away in Israel, the same question regarding penicillin was asked to the Chazon Ish, one of Israel’s preeminent authorities (and had no contact with Rav Feinstein). He was asked about dispensing the limited supply of penicillin at Hadassah hospital during the War of Independence in 1948. He ruled exactly as Rav Feinstein did; first come, first served.) In human terms, there can be superior and inferior because we are finite beings who see a wide gap between someone of great achievement compared with one of little or (seemingly) no achievement. But G-d is infinite and infinity makes no distinction between fraction of a millimeter and a million miles—both can be equally significant or insignificant. Two people struggle to hold back and not react to a nasty comment; for one, it extremely difficult due to his toxic and critical nature but for the other, who has a sweet disposition and grew up in a warm and supportive home, holding back was not at all a challenge. Only G-d knows what people go through; we cannot make the judgement of who is superior to whom.
Still in all, a community cannot function without stratifications. There need to be leaders who make decisions that affect lives. There are teachers and there are students. There are donors and there are recipients. There are providers of services and there are beneficiaries of services. However, no status of any kind affects the value of a person before G-d. We are required to emulate His attributes, which means that we too should view a human life as something that is not measurable.
Every human life is of equal value to G-d, and must be so to us as well.
(Sources: Alshich; Pesachim 25b; Twerski on Chumash pp. 424-425)
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