I don't know about you, but when I read the back issues of Reader's Digest while waiting for the doctor to call me, I only ever read the jokes and quotes. Those real life stories of heroism and rescue scare me. Who wants to read how some quiet schoolboy dived off a cliff fifteen times into an earthquake of burning buildings while standing in front of oncoming trains and wrestling with wild lions all to save three lost budgies?

The Cost of Compassion

At the height of the public-liability crisis, when insurance companies were going under and the cost of indemnifying oneself was skyrocketing, I read an interesting statistic: seems the constant barrage of negative publicity had made the public so wary of being found personally liable in case of error, that many people were hesitating to offer assistance even in cases of genuine need. Unwilling to risk being sued, passers-by were choosing to ignore the cries of choking and heart-attacks victims and were skirting the scene of accidents. Even those who would generally be willing to risk life and limb to save others were scared off by the financial implication of their bravery.

While my sympathies with their concerns are genuine, and I encourage our legislators to strengthen laws protecting those good souls who selflessly step forward to protect others, I am interested in what response Jewish Law would advocate in such situations. How much is one obligated to risk saving another?

Stand and Deliver

We read this week the Torah section Kedoshim (literally "Holiness"), one of the most rich and complex sections of the Torah. Replete with mitzvot and their details, the Parshah could truly be described as an all-round prescription for living an ethical and moral life.

One prohibition caught my attention: Do not stand by your fellow's blood (Leviticus 19:16). Seems a funny way of telling you to save the life of someone in imminent danger: why put the case in the negative do not stand by... and not as a positive directive, Go to the aid of your fellow or something similar?

Commentators point out that an obligation to help someone in danger when there is no self-risk is obvious, and unnecessary of mention. The Torah is commanding us to step in to save others even when the rescuer is placed in a situation of personal risk. In other words, if there is a good chance that one's effort would be rewarded and a life saved, then the Torah commands one to not stand by even though one is risking personal danger.

Financial hazards would seemingly be of no account; rather, the imperative to save the blood of another would supersede other considerations.

Obviously the specific details are complex and beyond the scope of this article, but one thing is incontestable: the very fact that you were there on the spot and the opportunity presented itself to you to be instrumental in another's salvation, renders on you the moral responsibility to do whatever you can to alleviate the danger.

So too when coming into contact with a fellow Jew in jeopardy of imminent spiritual peril; whether drowning in ignorance, fired up with passion for an inappropriate relationship or smothered by the false charms of foreign ideologies, it is to you that his plight presents itself and it is your responsibility to drop all thoughts of self-preservation and rush to his immediate aid.