Intentional Intervention

We must learn to offer hand-ups instead of hand-outs.


Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

One afternoon during an Introduction to Jewish Philosophy class, my professor posed the following question: If you are walking by a swimming pool, and you see someone drowning, what is your obligation to intervene? Must you dive in? Call for help? Throw her a line?

According to American law, there is no legal obligation to rescue a person in danger. Jewish law, however, provides a different answer. The duty to positively act to save a life comes in this week’s Torah portion: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).” Commenting on this verse, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) specifically addresses the question raised by my professor:

american jewish world service“Whence do we know that if a man sees his fellow drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him? From the verse, ‘You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor!'”

All of the situations raised by the Talmud pose potential danger to the rescuer, yet we are still commanded to act. The Talmud goes on to discuss the extent of this obligation–explaining that this Biblical command requires Jews to expend up to all of their resources, financial and physical, to save human life.

Global Implications

Elie Wiesel, speaking at the Darfur Emergency Summit in July 2004, interpreted the ancient verse to highlight its contemporary global implications:

Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa is a Biblical commandment. Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man. The word is not achi’cha, thy Jewish brother, but re’echa, thy fellow human being, be he or she Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.”

Yet, in our contemporary context, the demand of this obligation is overwhelming–there is so much need that I am not even sure where to begin. I am convinced that I need to be involved, but how to do so seems unclear. Looking at this verse again, I see a subtle, yet crucial, message. 

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

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