“One life is not preferable to another.”
The discussion that has been taking place for days on deriving benefit from prohibited items takes an interesting turn today once we get past the discourse on cooking meat in milk and planting diverse kinds of seeds in a vineyard. There is more flogging mentioned in the text today, which is fairly upsetting in its lack of proportionality to the crime. But I have been warned against envisioning Rabbis in a courtyard with a whip in their hands ready to flog people who intentionally or unintentionally violate religious restrictions. I have been told the scene never happened, and the threat of flogging was to keep people in line so that they would obey religious laws.
The text takes a sharp left turn and the Gemara announces that it is time to discuss “another matter pertaining to deriving benefit.” And that other matter is a substantive one that incorporates life and death. Rabbi Yohanan is quoted as saying that “one may heal oneself with any substance except wood of a tree designated for idolatry.” The Gemara further clarifies that even the wood of such a tree is permitted if it is used to save someone’s life. A quote is provided from Deuteronomy that states one should love God with “all his heart and soul” and “with all your might.”
The statement “with all your might” has always resonated with me, because it suggests an active, physical love, while “all his heart and soul” is in the realm of the metaphysical and transcendent. Today’s text focuses on instances of both. Rabbi Eliezer is quoted as understanding that “with all your might” means that there are “circumstances in which a person must be prepared to die rather than be healed with a prohibited substance.” He should be willing to sacrifice his physical life for a spiritual one.
We are provided with examples of when one may take a life in order to save a life. If a woman is raped (the text says a “betrothed young woman” as if an older or unmarried woman may not be worth rescuing), we are told that one may murder her attacker in order to save her life. And in an insult to the victim, because the text has to explicitly state it, we are told that “the young woman has committed no sin worthy of death.” We are also told that just in the case of the young woman whose life can be saved through the killing of her attacker, “so too, one may save a potential murder victim by taking the pursuer’s life.”
In a major set-back for victim’s rights, the text backtracks and we are told that the young woman who was raped, “should allow herself to be killed and not transgress the prohibition of forbidden relations.” Consider the power dynamics of a woman who is raped by someone who is very respected in the community but cannot say anything for fear that she will be accused of adultery and killed for the alleged transgression.
We are presented with a basic tenet: “one life is not preferable to another” and one person’s blood is not “redder and more precious” than someone else’s. I have been thinking a great deal about all the heartbreak associated with the coronavirus and what it means to have lost 1,640,624 lives to the disease. That is over one million people around the world who are no longer with us. Every one of those lives mattered to someone. I have been obsessed with the numbers and have watched them climb each day in the United States, which now has over 300,000 deaths. How do you even begin to mourn the deaths of so many?
Each life lost to this disease is a tragedy and that tragedy is multiplied one-million times over. I do not think this horrific number can be rationalized or diminished. And even with the miraculous promise of a vaccine on the horizon, the count of the dead continues. It is as if the cavalry is arriving – but only after there are so many bodies abandoned in the street. And here’s the thing. Each and every one of us can save a life by doing the most simplest of things: wear a mask, maintain social distancing, follow CDC guidelines on staying home during the holidays and wash your hands.