Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) Penicillin in the Parsha

When penicillin was first discovered, only small amounts were available. At that time, the following issue was addressed in halacha (Jewish law): What should a doctor do if he has only a single dose of penicillin and a number of patients who need it? How should he decide to which patient it should be administered?
Penicillin was discovered in the 20th century; one would search in vain to find it referenced in the Torah, but a central idea concerning its distribution is.

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)

Was there a hierarchy in ancient Israel? Absolutely. There were elders, Kohanim (Priests), Levi’im (Levites), and tribal heads (and centuries later a King). Even though there was a hierarchy, 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 stands together, if one is truly special before G-d, it is because of his or her earneddistinction; it is not because of their lineage. This idea has ramifications in Judaism’s system of values.

If a person is offered a choice; you will be killed unless-i.e. you have the option of remaining alive-you murder someone else. That person is required to choose martyrdom rather murder. The Talmud reasons, ”Who says your blood is redder than his? Perhaps the blood of the other person (whom you were ordered to murder) is redder than yours”. In other words, what right do you have to suppose that your life is of greater value than his?
What is the halachah (ruling) if a philanthropist who is the 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? The halachah (ruling) remains the same. He must accept martyrdom rather than kill. Isn’t it obvious that the philanthropist is more valuable to a community than a vagabond? Aren’t there people in the community who whose existence is clearly more valuable than others? Yes, but this is only true as it concerns our corporeal existence; it is how our human minds perceive a situation but we have no knowledge of the Almighty’s barometer of how He evaluates people.
Concerning the question above regarding penicillin, Rav Moshe Feinstein, preeminent authority on halacha (Jewish law) in 20th century in the United States, answered that the doctor must give it to the first patient he encounters who requires it. He may not judge who is more deserving to be treated (i.e. “Who says your blood is redder than his? Who says your life has more worth than his?). Even though penicillin is in abundance today and therefore this question is no longer relevant, his approach 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 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 in halacha (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 or inferior. We are finite beings and can see the wide gap between a person 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 and there is a need for followers. 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.

Good Shabbos

(Sources: Alshich; Pesachim 25b; Twerski on Chumash pp. 424-425)