When human life is in danger, Jews stop and pay attention. In fact, we set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is threatened. According to Mishnah Ta’anit, the Sages declared a day of communal fasting and prayer when only a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind, and another when two wolves — capable of killing children — were merely spotted in an inhabited area. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice and consider how to respond. This is the way we live.
We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating and more hostile to human life than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, and more frequent wildfires. Insects and fungi will spread to places where they didn’t previously appear, threatening crops. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them — and to their possible consequences.
Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today and, more important, for tomorrow and beyond.
1. Solidarity: In Genesis 41, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the upcoming years of plenty and years of famine, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food during the good years so that it can be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, the Torah reports that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came.” The Talmud asks: Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? From Yosef’s behavior, the Talmud concludes, we learn that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.
This conclusion is codified into Jewish law with only with slight modifications. Nonetheless, the medieval Tosafists challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! Many have offered answers to this question, but among the most compelling comes from a 19th-century thinker, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein. For Levi, a refugee fleeing famine in Canaan, there would have been no reason to refrain from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. Out of this solidarity, the Talmud hopes, we will develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions that respond to the challenges experienced by others.
2. Priority: To illustrate just how highly Jews prioritize human life over all other considerations, consider this halachic decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor in the spring of 1868. In the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, peas and beans were among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor.Rabbi Spektor decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot (legumes) would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer, we know rabbis face pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices? Rabbi Spektor might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not, because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority.
3. Prayer: On the morning after he petitioned God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah records that Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. The Talmud asserts that Avraham prayed at that moment. We can’t help but wonder, though, what kind of prayer he would have said at that point. I think it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern.” Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes do I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion.” You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of Your creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.
No one knows for certain what lies ahead. But, as religious people, we prepare ourselves for the possibility of danger to human life, through readying our eyes and hearts to see and feel, our arms to reach and respond, and our souls to seek Divine wisdom through prayer. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us when we live in challenging times.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). A regular contributor to the Journal, he blogs at jewishjournal.com/morethodoxy.