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How Can I Live Without Causing Harm?

How Can I Live Without Causing Harm?



I have endeavored to maintain a vegan lifestyle for close to 20 years. In reality, however, every time we spend a penny, anywhere, we are relinquishing control of the ethical direction of our money. We could never know for certain that the profits will not inevitably be directed towards an atrocious act. Taxes on profit will certainly buy bullets, fund factory farming, etc. We're all aware of the unpleasant consequences of irresponsible industry coupled with irresponsible consumerism.

I want to live my life without causing any suffering at all. Are you aware of any totally self-sustained collectives that do not contribute to the suffering of others at all? This sort of isolated lifestyle seems ideal for truly compassionate living.


Some years ago, I volunteered to head a certain community program. Thank G‑d, hundreds of families were directly helped by our activities. But despite the overall success of the project, there were a few individuals who were upset by some details of the operation. It was those three angry letters - not the three hundred thank-yous - that stood out in my mind. I remember telling myself that in the future, I'd think twice before doing this sort of thing again.

I shared these thoughts with a mentor of mine. I'll always remember his wise response. "In life, the only way to never upset anyone is to do nothing." Those few words had a strong impact on me. Of course, we must be careful not to hurt anyone. But that should never get in the way of helping others.

Is there such a thing as a life that never, even indirectly, causes any suffering to others? Is it possible to live in the isolated setting you write about, never aiding anyone who does not suit your ideals?

Perhaps. But what would define that as a "truly compassionate life?" You wouldn't hurt anyone, true, but neither would you help too many either.

We were created to make this world a better place - not just to avoid making things worse. Our souls didn't have to come down here if the goal was to "not cause pain to anyone." That was better accomplished by not being born at all. Rather, our souls are charged with a mission to create a kinder, holier world.

That takes action. It takes interacting with others. It takes giving.

Might my purchase of healthy food support a supplier who maltreats his laborers? By buying a bicycle so I can get to work with a minimal environmental footprint will I indirectly reward a supplier who builds weapons and armaments? Might the tax be used to fund a government project I consider wasteful or polluting?

Perhaps. But I'm willing to risk those sorts of things. For I also know that the food I buy will directly result in guests eating at my Shabbat table. The support I give the store will help countless employees pay rent. The smile I give the nervous-looking shopper, the favor I do to the old lady by carrying her bags to the car, the coin I drop into the beggar's cup outside the store...they are why I am here.

Of course, we should not support those causes that openly contradict our values. But when in doubt, I prefer to err on the side of helping and contributing.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
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Michael Rudmin portsmouth, Va October 8, 2013

And what is suffering? We think of suffering as pointless pain, and therefore evil. But is that truly its nature? is not suffering a testimony to the victory of life and love over pointless pain?

Think of your own moments of greatest suffering: the rejection of a beloved, the death of a loved one... but your pain is a testimony to your love DESPITE the loss. in other words, the sufferer outloves his circumstances.

Thus, suffering is also a testimony to the goodness of our creator who gave us both life and love.

By all means, don't cause pointless pain if you can help it. But don't let a fear of suffering immobilize you.

But as for the community, why not form a community garden where people can hear the Divine wor of Hashem, and consider it in silence as they work, and evenly split the produce according to time worked? Reply

Francine Pecoraro La Puente, CA via January 17, 2010

How can I live without causing Harm? What a beautiful article. Thank you. Reply

Stuart Sun Lakes, AZ January 13, 2010

I think the question deserves a much more confrontational answer. The two "atrocious" acts mentioned. factory farming and the use of bullets deserve a further look.

Factory farming, to include the use of chemical and genetic engineering ,has made the fight against famine and hunger a political battle and not one of producing enough food. The questioner should think about starving children while contmplating how righteous they are.

The Torah commands us not to stand by while our neighbors blood is shed (Lev. 19:16). I am very happy to have provided some of the tax money used to buy the bullets to defeat tyrants and terrorists. I am even prouder to have fought against tyrants and terrorists in the US military.

No, the answer is make the world a better place, tikkun olum. The world is not made a beeter place by contemplating how evil man is (consequences of irresponsible industry coupled with irresponsible consumerism), but by doing something about it. Reply

Leah Herman Cary, NC January 13, 2010

Beautifully answered This was such a thoughtful response. Thank you for your insight, it was a beautiful response to an often asked question. Reply

Michael Rosenfield mesa, az December 15, 2009

How can I live without causing harm? What a fantastic answer, Rabbi!
Some people seem to forget that humans have as much right to use the earth's resources as all the other creatures do; and that moreover, we humans have work to do here.
Thank you. Reply

mazal myrle beach, SC December 14, 2009

Rabbi COtlar, thank you for choosing this article to respond to publicly. It was illuminating. I love the simplicity with which you addressed and answered a very complex spiritual issue. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by ones lack of control or psychological freedom. It's sweet to know that even in the midst of what appears to be spiritual chaos, that we still have choices, choices that ultimately outweigh the negative and effect positive outcomes, both in the short term and that ripple through the long term. i appreciate the question as much as I do the answer Reply