“Standing Idly By”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

An extraordinary number of mitzvot are found in the double parashiot that are read this week. Together, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim contain 102 (28 and 74), almost one-sixth of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot. Among the 102 mitzvot in these parashiot are many of the most exalted commandments and moral principles of human civilization.

Of all the mitzvot found in these parashiot, the mitzvah recorded in Leviticus 19:16: “Lo ta’ah’moad al dahm ray’eh’chah, Ah’nee Hashem,” Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, I am G-d, stands out as one of the most extraordinary. It is from this verse that our rabbis derive the principle known as rodeph–the law of the pursuer.

If one sees a person being pursued by a third individual with the intention of murdering or raping that person, the witness must do everything in his/her power to stop the attack, even if it means taking the life of the pursuer. Obviously, if there is a less violent way of stopping the pursuer, that method must be exercised. If the defender uses a lethal method when other means are available, the “rescuer” is considered guilty of murder.

The principle of rodeph, derived from the scriptural statement in Leviticus 19:16, is the principle invoked to justify terminating an embryo in the womb in order to save a mother’s life. The fetus is considered a “pursuer,” and the physician, a “rescuer.” However, once the baby’s head has emerged, it is no longer permissible to take the child’s life.

In general, the rule is that one must make every effort to rescue any person who is in danger, without unduly endangering one’s own life. Thus, saving someone from fire or from drowning is considered a noble deed and a great mitzvah. Of course, deciding which circumstances require intervention is not always easy. So, for instance, in most instances it is not permissible to use lethal force to stop a thief, because life is considered more valuable than money or property. However, if a thief is caught breaking into a home at night, he is presumed to have hostile, even murderous, intentions and the homeowner is permitted to use maximum force to save himself in those circumstances.

The seemingly innocuous verse that teaches us not to stand by idly as a person’s blood is shed is in reality a major signpost in Jewish jurisprudence that underscores the great difference between the Jewish legal system and most legal systems of the world. Most legal systems hold its citizens liable either for causing harm to others or for failing to perform certain required actions, such as paying taxes, feeding, clothing and sheltering one’s children, driving without a license, etc. Jewish law, remarkably, in this instance, declares a person culpable for doing nothing. The Torah thus affirms that merely standing by and not getting involved could be construed to be a sinful act! This conclusion is premised on the basic Jewish assumption that good deeds can only be performed through positive action, while evil can often be committed by simply doing nothing.

Although it was Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who eloquently stated that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” it was the Torah in Leviticus 19:16 that first articulated this seminal idea. While most legal systems in the world would exonerate a person who refuses to jump into the water to save a drowning friend or fails to untie a child who had been bound to the railroad tracks, Jewish law regards this failure to act as criminal and punishable. While punishment for failing to act in this instance may not be exacted at the hands of man, it will be exacted at the hands of G-d.

Once again, we see how Jewish law and Jewish philosophy, especially in matters concerning the primacy of human life, employs a subtle, but profoundly different yardstick than the rest of the legal and ethical systems of the world. These revolutionary subtleties must not be taken for granted. Indeed, they are expected to be part and parcel of every person’s psyche and behavior. For it is only with careful study and diligent practice that human beings are able to do what is right and conduct themselves in a truly ethical manner. Since moments of crises most often arrive when there is not much time to plan or think, it is necessary for these values to be an integral part of everyone’s inner being and become part of our fundamental awareness and instinct, so that when we are challenged, we respond correctly and naturally, without hesitation.

At this time of year, when much of the Jewish community is actively involved in commemorating the victims of the Shoah and the miraculous existence of the State of Israel, these ultimate human values become of even greater importance and resonate with special fervor.

May you be blessed.