Why does saving a life go before keeping the Shabbat? Desecrating the Shabbat is a very serious offense. More than Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Shabbat. Not keeping Shabbat is like national suicide.
Jews, different from all other Peoples, form a Nation with a higher calling. There is a reason for the existence of the Jewish People. And if Jews would abandon their calling, there is no reason for them to continue to exist as a People. Jews should then live on as everyone else, mingling and intermarrying, because what is greater than love than spans gaps between cultures? What an enrichment.
But as long as Jews need to abide by their Mission, we must be a Nation that dwells alone. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have or don’t need Gentile friends. But we should be distinct and guard ourselves against watering down our Program by assimilation and intermarriage.
Keeping Shabbat (and for men learning Torah) is indicative of a Jew. Violating Shabbat is a serious thing. But (even possibly) saving a life still takes precedence. Almost no principle in life is worth losing one’s life for, or it must be to guard the sanctity of life.
If two Jews find themselves in the desert with one just having enough water to drink for one to survive, what to do? Are they going to drink each half, to die in solidarity? Can the more generous one give it to the other? That would be self-defeating, to let the stingy one live. Is the smarter, wiser, nicer, holier, fitter then getting the privilege? No, the Sages teach us that the one who has the water keeps it for himself. Who is anyone to decide that someone else’s life is better? Even if you have the water and you think that the other is the Redeemer.
If you have a slight change to save someone’s life, but almost certainly would lose your own doing so, you don’t. Let G-d be in change about things you cannot rectify.
But if mean people say: You kill him or we will kill you for refusing, you refuse to murder. Is your blood redder than the other’s? If someone must be murdered, better to end life as a victim than a murderer.
But if someone sets out to kill you, (if you need to,) you kill him before he can. Don’t be so soft on murderers that you promote murder.
Yet, 2000 years ago, Jews abandoned capital punishment when it stop deterring people from murdering. When life gets so cheap, we don’t want to add to this degeneration by also killing – even proved murderers.
In fact, the Sages call a Holy Great Rabbinic Court that executes for murder twice within seven years a bunch of murderers. Or even twice in seventy years! They are meant to search like crazy for reasons not to execute. Capital punishment is there for deterrence, but execution makes little sense. G-d wants us to not execute guilty ones, as much as possible. He can deal with them perfectly well Himself.
In fact, we see Abraham argue with G-d (argue!) in order to save the lives of even the wicked.
So we see how precious human life is in the eyes of Judaism.
But we said before, that violating the Shabbat is like national suicide. So how can the Rabbis permit us to transgress Shabbat Laws to save a life? The argument for it is: one can throw away one Shabbat in order to (hopefully) acquire many more after that. Jews are mutually responsible for each other keeping the Commandments, so the Shabbattot saved for someone else can enable us to violate one of our own.
However, that doesn’t work for saving a Gentile’s life. Gentiles are not even allowed to keep Shabbat – unless they study its Laws and a rabbinic court gives them to them as a life-long obligation. So how could we save a Gentile’s life on Shabbat? The Sages, of course, found a reasoning. To prevent Gentiles getting angry with us and refusing to save Jews’ lives.
However, the real reason for saving a life, even if one has to violate the Shabbat for it, is of course not so that the saved may keep Shabbat – or the Gentiles won’t be angry. The real reason is that nothing in the whole universe is as precious as a human being. When we save a life, we’re as if we saved the whole world. Every person is a world on his/her own. We are each completely unique.
Any over-principledness leads to absurdity. A code of life, that Judaism is, must guard against extremism and fanaticism. In fact, Jews are taught that we should almost in all cases try to walk the middle road. A philosophy of life (!) that puts central not to murder should not lead to bloodshed. Most principles are not worthy to die for and not to kill for. The whole to Torah is given so that we may live.
The Sages even teach us – far-out! – that in the End of Days, G-d will slaughter the Satan, the Angel of Death. Death is the enemy.
Therefore, when Israeli soldiers (most of them Jewish, no doubt) set out to try to save lives of people in Mexico (most of them not Jewish, no doubt), hit by two earthquakes, on the Festival and Shabbat, we don’t say that they can do so to show that Jews are decent people. Rather, the rabbis should say: Go save lives – that’s what anyone decent person should do, that’s how precious every life is, and Jews must take the lead.
On Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur we plead for our very lives – that we all may live another year. What better way to deserve that than saving lives in real time.
That we all may live. Lechayim!