A Religion of Life

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Acharei Mot (After the Death…) contains a fundamental principle of the Jewish religion. The verse states, “You shall guard my statutes and ordinances which a person shall perform and live by them; I am Hashem” (VaYikra 18:5). We understand that we must observe and execute the commandments, but what is the meaning of the injunction that we are to “live by them”?

There is an important Halachik teaching contained here. The question inevitably arises, how far must one go in adhering to the Mitzvot? What if one’s life would be endangered by his fulfillment of a particular Mitzvah?

Suppose, for whatever reason, the consumption of Matzah produced a negative effect on one’s health, which could possibly engender a life-and-death situation. Should the person eat the Matzah and have complete faith that Hashem will protect him and that no harm could possibly come to one who is scrupulously carrying out G-d’s commands? Or should he act according to the advice of his physician, who has warned that eating the unleavened bread could have a deleterious impact on his health?

The Halacha is quite clear on this matter. One may not engage in an activity that jeopardizes life, even if this happens to be a commandment. This applies to all Mitzvot except for the three most egregious ones: idolatry, murder and severe sexual violations. However, concerning all the other obligations–even the most serious of them such as Shabbat and Yom Kippur–we are not permitted to endanger ourselves in order to fulfill our religious obligations.

Thus, one must desecrate the Sabbath by driving to a hospital if he is feeling unwell and there is a possibility (it need not be a certainty) that it might be fatal. [It should be noted that if one is sick, but it is clear that there is no risk of fatality, then he may not violate Shabbat to obtain treatment.] If the person is extremely pious and decides to assume the health risk and refrain from desecrating Shabbat, he commits a grave sin. And the same is true of Yom Kippur. As important as fasting for that entire day is, it must be avoided if it contains any threat to the continued existence of the individual.

Judaism is very committed to the well-being of the individual and the community and is adamantly opposed to religious zealousness which leads to self-endangerment. In the Laws of Shabbat (2:3) the Rambam states:

It is forbidden to hesitate before transgressing the Sabbath on behalf of a person who is dangerously ill, as it says “Which a person shall perform and live through them”–but not that he should die through them. We thus learn that the judgements of the Torah are not intended to be vengeance upon the world, but mercy and kindness and peace upon the world. Regarding the heretics who claim that violating the Sabbath to save a life constitutes desecration of Shabbat, the verse states, “I gave them harmful laws and statutes; through which one cannot live” (Yechezkeil 20:25).

Consequently, one who refuses to violate the Shabbat or any Mitzvah when it’s a matter of danger to life, is not only a sinner, he is also guilty of distorting the very essence of Judaism. He is saying that the Mitzvot have no regard for human life, but instead require a fanatic obsessive dedication to the performance of all the requirements, irrespective of the damage that such actions may bring about.

This is akin to Muslim fanatics like Hamas and ISIS, which demand human sacrifice in the glorification of their “god.” Clearly, these religions' purpose is not to enhance human existence and bring civilization to a higher level. Rather, man's life is unimportant, and his only purpose is to glorify his deity by dying for him. In complete contradistinction to Judaism, they glorify death and demean life. (I do not intend to include all versions of Islam in this categorization. There are many streams of theology in that faith which do strive for greater mutual understanding and peaceful relations.)

In my opinion, the words of the verse, “And you shall live by them” express the philosophy of the Torah. Being truly Jewish is not restricted to mere performance of the commandments. One must live according to the wisdom contained in the Mitzvot.

This means that the genuine religion of Torah contains a profound philosophy of life that illuminates all dimensions of one’s existence. Hashem’s Name is sanctified in the world when people behave in all their endeavors according to the wisdom, justice and compassion which are embedded in the Laws and teachings of the Five Books of Moshe.

May we merit to achieve this.

Shabbat Shalom.

Questions/comments? Please email Rabbi Mann at: rebmann21@aol.com