Acharei Mot

Acharei Mot – The Value of Life

Vayikra, 18:5: “And you will guard My statutes and laws, that you will do them and you will live by them, I am HaShem.”

Rashi, 18:5, Dh: And you will live by them: “In the next World, because if you will say [it refers to] this world, his end is to die.”

The Torah tells us that if we will keep the Mitzvot, then we will ‘live by them’. Rashi explains that the Torah does not simply mean that we will live forever by them in this world, because everyone is destined to die. Rather, the Torah is referring to life in the only place that is eternal – the Next World. However, the Talmud derives a very different lesson from this verse.

The Talmud has a lengthy discussion about the source of the halacha that one is permitted, and obligated, to transgress any Mitzva, (with the exception of murder, Idol worship and immorality) in order to save a life. Shmuel states that the source is this verse where the Torah says, ‘you will live by them’. Shmuel explains that the Torah is coming to allude that one should live through his Mitzva observance and not die through keeping the Torah, hence one should not do a Mitzva that could result in death. The Talmud concludes that Shmuel’s interpretation is the best one.

It is instructive to analyze the ramifications that ‘vechai bahem’ is the source of the obligation to break the Torah in order to save a life. One of the other suggested sources for the source of this obligation is a verse relating to the obligation to keep Shabbat: The Torah tells us, “And the children of Israel will keep the Shabbat in order to keep the Shabbat throughout their generations.”

Rebbe Shimon Ben Menasya interprets this verse to be instructing us to break one Shabbat to save a person’s life so that he will be able to observe many Shabbatot in the future . This derivation would seem to apply not just to Shabbat, but to all Mitzvot in general, whereby the Torah instructs us to break any Mitzva in order to potentially enable the sick person to keep other Mitzvot in the future.

The commentaries note that there is a very significant nafka mina (practical difference) between this interpretation and that of Shmuel. According to Rebbe Shimon Ben Menasya, the reason that we break Shabbat is so that the sick person may be able to observe Shabbat in the future. It follows that in a case where it is totally certain that person will not be capable of surviving to keep another Shabbat then there is no permit to break Shabbat to save his life.

In contrast, according to Shmuel’s drash that life is of more value than a Mitzva, the permit and obligation to break a Mitzva to save a life would apply even if the sick person will definitely not be able to live long enough, or be well enough to perform any Mitzvot in the future.

The Mishnah Berurah rules definitively that the halacha follows Shmuel, that we must break any Mitzva (excluding the three aforementioned Mitzvot) in order to save a life. The reason for this is that life in and of itself is of intrinsic, infinite value, even if there would seem to be no practical benefit for lengthening the sick persons’ life.

This idea has been particularly pertinent for the past several weeks, as the whole world has been struck with the worst pandemic in many decades, that has seen thousands of deaths. It is at times like this when it is incumbent upon us to remember how precious the gift of life is and the great value of every moment of life. Life is full of challenges and there are times when a person can feel despondent – but if he remembers that life itself is cause for joy then he can overcome any negative feelings:

When the Alter of Novardok first started to build yeshivot, he was unsuccessful. He built yeshivot and they collapsed, he organized groups and they disintegrated. In addition, he and his approach were attacked by opponents. At that time, he came to Kelm and his Rebbi, The Alter of Kelm noticed he looked sad and understood why. That Motsei Shabbat when a group had gathered to hear his talk, he stood at the podium and remained silent for a very, very long time. Then he banged his hand on the shtender and thundered, “It is enough for a living being that he is alive.” Over and over he repeated his words until finally he told the group to pray Maariv. “That session” said the Alter of Novardok “dispelled my gloom and cleared my thoughts. ”

The Alter of Kelm taught the Alter of Novardok a priceless lesson – as long as one is alive, there is nothing to complain about.

May we all merit to appreciate the gift of life and use it to its fullest.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

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