Parashat Behar: The Way to Look at a Fellow Jew
The Torah in Parashat Behar speaks of the obligation to support a fellow Jew in financial straits, adding, "Ve’heh Ahicha Imach" – "and your brother shall live with you" (25:36). We are to help our fellow in distress so he can sustain himself and continue living securely and happily.
The Gemara in Masechet Baba Mesia (62a) brings a famous debate among the Sages relevant to this verse. The case under discussion is two men traveling together in a searing desert, and they run out of water. One traveler has no water left at all, and the other has enough water for only one of them to live. If he shares some of his water with his travel mate, they will both die. The Gemara cites Ben Petura as teaching, "It is preferable that they both drink and die, rather than one seeing his fellow’s death." In his view, the person with water does not have more rights to his water than his fellow traveler, and so he cannot keep the water for himself. The Gemara then says that Ben Petura taught this approach "until Rabbi Akiba came and taught, ‘and your brother shall live with you’ – your life precedes that of your fellow." Rabbi Akiba inferred from the expression, "your brother shall live with you" that a person is entitled to sustain his own life before saving his fellow’s life.
Intuitively, we would have assumed without any hesitation that Rabbi Akiba’s position is correct. After all, why should both travelers die, if one life can be saved? And why should the traveler with the water not be entitled to save his life by drinking his own water? Why would he be required to share it?
However, Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mir (1873-1936) noted that in truth, Ben Petura is fundamentally correct. After all, the Gemara said that Ben Petura taught his perspective until Rabbi Akiva came along and established that this is not the Halacha. This implies that Ben Petura’s view represents the intuitive perspective, and we needed Rabbi Akiba to teach us otherwise.
Rav Yerucham explained that Ben Petura’s view reflects the way we are to look at our fellow Jews – as no less deserving of anything than we are. We are not to feel entitled to any more privileges than anybody else. We are all one and the same. Even the water in our knapsack must be shared with our fellow Jew, because we are all equal before G-d. We must care for others no less than we care for ourselves. Practically, we are to save ourselves before saving others. But in principle, we must never see ourselves as more deserving of anything than our fellow Jew is.
The story is told of a certain Hesed organization that was interviewing candidates for the position of director general of the organization, and it posed to them the following question:
Imagine you are driving on a frigid, snowy day, and you pass by a bus stop and see three men waiting for the bus. One is an elderly man, shivering from the fierce cold. The other is a doctor on his way to the hospital where patients are waiting for him. And the third is your best friend. The car you drive has only one passenger seat. To whom do you offer a ride?
One candidate said right away that the driver should offer a ride to the doctor, who needs to get to the hospital as quickly as possible in order to treat patients and thereby save lives. A second candidate said that without doubt, the elderly man, who could get seriously ill waiting out in the cold, should be given the ride. A third candidate disagreed with both, arguing that with friendship comes commitment, and so a person’s best friend takes precedence over everybody else.
But the right answer was given by the fourth candidate. He said that the driver should get out of the car, give the keys to the doctor who should then drive himself and the elderly man, while the driver waits for the bus together with his best friend…
There is no reason to think that we are more entitled to a comfortable ride than those who do not have a car. We are all equally humble creatures sharing G-d’s earth.
Yes, Halacha follows Rabbi Akiba’s opinion, that we are to care for ourselves first. However, Ben Petura’s view must shape our overall outlook on our fellow Jews. If they need our help, we must share what we have with them, and never for a moment believe that we deserve more than they do.