“So That Your Brother May Live With You”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the dominant themes of parashat Behar is the Torah’s concern with those who are impoverished–to provide help for them and the Torah’s strategy to prevent poverty.

In Leviticus 25:35, the Torah states, וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ, and if your brother becomes impoverished, and his means falter with you, you shall strengthen him–whether he be a proselyte or a regular resident–so that he can live with you. In Leviticus 25:36 that follows, the Torah warns not to take interest or increase from the needy, rather you shall fear your L-rd,וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ , so that your brother may live with you.

Rashi explains the expression,וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּו, and you shall strengthen him [the impoverished person], to mean that it is especially important to help a person in need before he or she becomes impoverished. Says Rashi: “When the donkey’s load begins to slip, one man alone can adjust it and keep the donkey from falling. But once the animal has fallen, even five people cannot get it back on its feet.” That is why Maimonides rules that the highest form of charity is preventing a person from becoming poor, by enabling a person to earn a living (Laws of Gifts for the Poor, 10:7).

Aside from the contextual issue of poverty, the verse in Leviticus 25:36, וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ, so that your brother may live with you, plays a key role in one of the most famous ethical discussions in the Talmud. The Talmud in Baba Metziah 62a speaks of two men who were traveling through the desert, and only one of them has a flask of water. The Sifra on Leviticus 25:36, has an expanded account of this case, in which two Talmudic sages dispute.

“That your brother may live with you,” (Leviticus 25:36). The following was expounded by Ben Petura: Two men were traveling through the desert and one of them has a flask of water. If he alone will drink the water, he will reach the town, but if both of them drink they will both die.

Ben Petura expounded the verse, “That your brother may live with you,” to mean that both should drink and die (rather than that one should live while the other dies). But Rabbi Akiva said to him: “That your brother may live with you,” means that your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.

In his analysis of this passage, the late British scholar, Louis Jacobs asks: Is it better for the man with the water to drink the water himself so that he may survive until he reaches a town where he will be provided with food or drink, or is he required to share his water with his companion, even though this means that both of them will die? Professor Jacobs notes that this particular debate is a world famous discussion that was raised also in Roman law.

In his analysis, Professor Jacobs notes that it is quite obvious that if the person who possesses the jug of water has enough water for both and withholds the water, his action would be akin to murder. But here, there is only enough water for one person, and the possessor needs it in order to save himself. Ben Petura argues that since the Torah says, “That your brother may live with you,” the person who possesses the water would be sinful not to share it with his fellow traveler. Since the water is able to sustain both lives now, that is how the water must be used. The fact that it may run out later, and as a result both will die, should not be their present concern. Considerations of what may happen to them later should not be taken into account at the present time.

Rabbi Akiva understands the message of the verse entirely differently. Rabbi Akiva maintains that the verse, “That your brother may live with you,” means that, where you will be able to live, you must make certain that your brother shall live as well. However, if you cannot live, then you do not have to give up your life in order for your brother to survive.

Professor Jacobs notes that neither Rabbi Akiva nor Ben Petura suggest that the man with the water give all the water to his companion, leaving none for himself, so that his fellow traveler survives, even though he himself would die. If that were truly what was required, says Professor Jacobs, then, as soon as the companion receives the water, he would be obligated to give it back to his fellow traveler. Professor Jacobs also notes that, while there seems to be no obligation for the possessor of the water to give any water to his neighbor so that he may survive, “it would probably be considered by Judaism, as a tremendous act of self-sacrifice, if you wish to do so.”

Throughout the Talmud, there may be found many cases of these so-called “lifeboat ethics” situations. Perhaps the most important message of all these theoretical discussions is that every Jew must consider these life and death situations carefully, so that, G-d forbid, a Jew faced with such challenging circumstances will be well-informed and know what to do and how to react. Rather than rely on speculation or conjecture, it is important for Jews to be knowledgeable enough to respond promptly and properly, especially in instances where other peoples’ lives are at stake.

That can only be accomplished with sincere devotion to scholarship and Torah study.

May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, will be observed on Monday night, May 5th, and all day Tuesday, May 6th, 2014.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut Samayach!