The Bible Says What? ‘Dirty laundry comes before saving lives’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Dirty laundry comes before saving lives’

Rabbi Sandra Kviat takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a progressive Jewish response

 Two people are travelling through a desert. One of them is carrying a bottle with just enough water to sustain one person. Whoever drinks the water will live; the other person will die. If both people drink half the water, both will die. What should they do?

The ancient rabbis argue the owner of the bottle should drink it, using a biblical command from Leviticus that one should first save one’s own life, before helping others.

In another rabbinic story, we have two cities, one with a water supply, the other without.

As before, the ancient rabbis argue that the inhabitants of the city with the well have the right to the water before the other city – but add that if the well is only for animals, then the other city’s inhabitants have rights to the water.

Rabbi Yosi, however, disagreed. He said the animals and even doing the laundry takes precedent over the lives of people in the other city (Tosefta, Bava Metzia 11:33–37).

American Progressive Rabbi Jill Jacobs quotes a modern-day rabbinic study group where her colleagues were aghast that Rabbi Yosi’s view is upheld in Jewish tradition, until one pointed out: “We all do this all the time. I take my kids to water parks, even though I know there are people in the world who don’t have water to drink.”

This story highlights the competing responsibilities we all face, between our own needs, local needs and global needs.

Perhaps all of us are a bit more like Rabbi Yosi than we’d like to think, for we do choose our ‘laundry’ over the basic survival of those further away.

As we reflect in the weeks before the High Holy Days, let us each take some time to consider how we help others, whether they are our neighbour or the stranger in another land.

  • Rabbi Sandra Kviat serves Crouch End Chavurah
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