Earlier this summer, dozens of strangers on a Florida beach waded into the Gulf of Mexico to save the lives of nine people who were drowning after being caught in a riptide.
I first heard about this story while watching TV in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. I was riveted, and when I came home I wanted to know more. I went online and found the National Public Radio (NPR) transcript of Ari Shaprio interviewing one of the rescuers, Jessica Simmons. Shapiro asked Simmons to explain how a group of strangers decided to form a human chain. This was her response:
“Well, everybody was gathered already around everybody because they were watching it. And I was like, ‘We need to do something,’ because they were yelling at us to throw a rope or throw something to them and nobody had anything. You know, you don’t go to the beach bringing a rope.
So, my husband was with some guys and they were like, ‘Well, we can’t find a rope, but we can make one.’ And so they made a human chain with all the people that were gathered on the beach.
Well, I was passing the human chain and the guy on the end, he said, ‘Are you a good swimmer?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘Can you get them closer to us so we can grab them?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’
I had a boogie board, so I knew if I could get them on the boogie board and get them to them [sic] that would give them something to float to the human chain with. When I got there, it was the most horrifying thing I have ever encountered, seeing their faces, ’cause they were really restless. The grandmother was — her eyes were rolling in the back of her head. And the only thing they had out there was a surfboard.”
The grandmother was indeed having a heart attack, but Simmons worked tirelessly and quickly to get her onto the surf board and then the entire human chain worked together to pull and push the board down the line until the grandmother and all of the others were safely back on shore.
Once they realized what they had accomplished, everyone began cheering and clapping. And then they separated. “It was like they were destined to do it and they knew they had to do it, and then they went back to their own lives. Each person went back to their own family,” said Simmons.
I wondered after I read this account: What would I do in the same situation? More importantly, what should I do?
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 73(a) cites the passage in Leviticus 19:16, “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” as the source for the Jewish obligation to save people from clear and present danger. The same section of the Talmud brings a second proof that we must help those in danger, from the biblical obligation to return lost objects. The passage in Deuteronomy 22:2 instructs one who finds his neighbor’s ox to return it and concludes with the phrase “you shalt restore it to him.”
The Rabbis understand these two verses to refer to two different aspects of the obligation to help someone in danger. The verse, “You shall not stand idly by,” broadens the duty from the person to a financial obligation, i.e., it obligates the bystander to even hire someone else to save the victim, whereas the duty to rescue derived from the law of lost articles would have been limited to one’s personal obligation to “return someone to their life.”
For generations, commentators discussed this question: How much personal risk does one have to incur to save someone else, and how much money does one have to spend?
Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia (1170-1244) wrote in his Yad Ramah commentary to the Gemara in Sanhedrin that a rescuer must use his resources without apparent limit to save someone, but may afterwards try to recover the costs from the victim.
Rabbi Yosef Karo, on the other hand, does not discuss the idea of paying to save someone from danger in his 16th century law code, the Shulchan Aruch, but notes that if a bystander does not help or get help to save a person in a life-threatening situation, the bystander is responsible for the person’s death.
One thing is clear: we may not avert our eyes from suffering.
Today, we see people in life-threatening situations far more often than people living in previous generations ever did. We regularly see people suffering due to natural disasters and outbreaks of diseases, near and far, on our Facebook newsfeeds. We receive a steady flow of emails requesting our help to save a child who needs a life-saving surgery, or asking us to be tested to see if we are a bone marrow match for a friend’s cousin, or possibly donate a kidney to help a mother of three in another state. The scale of suffering and the need for help can seem overwhelming.
How are we to respond? Perhaps by first thinking locally.
Dr. Fred Rosner writes in his book, “Contemporary Biomedical Ethical Issues and Jewish Law,” that “Normative Jewish law … holds that it is permissible, but not mandatory, for a person to undergo a small risk or to subject himself to a minor danger to save the life of a fellow man. Thus organ donation from live donors including blood, bone marrow, skin, one kidney, and even part of the liver is permissible, provided the risk to the donor is small and the risk to the recipient is maximal, including possible death.”
We can visit a blood bank or attend a community blood drive to donate blood.
We can contribute to our synagogue’s emergency medical fund or to one of the many local organizations that support the sick and those facing serious life challenges.
We can join together, and as members of a caring Jewish community, form one big human chain that pushes and pulls people along until we can rest assured that we have done all we can to help those in danger reach safety.
Then we may go home and go about our business until the next opportunity arises for us to stretch out our hands again. But let’s not forget to cheer.
Special thank you to Rabbi Brahm Weinberg for introducing me to some of the concepts and the Talmudic sources cited above in his June Health and Halacha shiur, given at the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland. Any errors are entirely mine.
By Audrey Siegel
Audrey Siegel is the executive director of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington. She is a former New Yorker who has enjoyed living in Silver Spring with her family for the past 27 years. Audrey hopes to hike or bike every nature trail in Montgomery County, so wave if you see her along the way.