High Holy Day Sermons – 5774

Erev Rosh Hashanah – Saving Our Lives

There is an amazing midrash that I want to share with you tonight.  A midrash is a story that the rabbis write about an incident in the Torah.  The midrash, itself, is not in the Torah, but the rabbis write it for the purpose of teaching a new lesson or revealing a new truth about the verses that they find in the Torah. 

The midrash that I want to share with you is about the time when the Pharoah’s daughter came to bathe in the river Nile, and discovered Moses floating in his basket among the bull rushes by the river’s edge.  We all know the story.  Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses and arranges for a nursemaid, so that she can raise him as her own. The nursemaid turns out to be Moses’ mother, Yocheved.  Moses comes to live in the Pharaoh’s palace, only later to emerge as the leader of the Israelite people.

Now, according to the Midrash, found in Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer (47b), one of the handmaidens accompanying Pharaoh’s daughter, seeing that Moses was a Hebrew child, asks her why she is saving this little baby.  And here is the amazing part—Pharaoh’s daughter answers by quoting the Talmud—saying, “it is because we have been taught that one who saves a single life is regarded as one who saves the world.”

Now, you might not find this to be out of the ordinary.  And generations of rabbis and their disciples who studied this midrash might not have thought it unusual.  But anytime an ancient Egyptian princess quotes the Talmud, it gets my attention.  For even though it would not be written for another 2000 years, the rabbis put the words of Sanhedrin 37a into the mouth of Pharaoh’s daughter, and we must ask ourselves why?

The passage that she quotes is from the warnings presented to prospective jurors in cases involving capital crimes, to ensure that they treat their responsibilities seriously, because they would understand that Judaism places the highest value upon human life.  And because even Pharaoh’s daughter knew this, and quoted it correctly—and because she acted upon it, according to our midrash, she was given a place in Olam Ha-ba—The World to Come—which is our tradition’s highest reward.

Through this midrash, the rabbis are reminding us of the importance of this teaching: “One who saves a single life is regarded as though they had saved the world.” 

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah concurs: “Regarding Cain it is written,” he says, “The bloodsof your brother cry out to me.” (Gen 4:10); the word “bloods” is in the plural.  “The bloodsof your brother cry out to me.”  That is, his blood and the blood of his potential descendants.  For this reason, Adam was created alone, to show that should anyone destroy a single life he shall be called to account as though he had destroyed a complete world; and should anyone preserve a single life, he is credited as though he had preserved a complete world.”

So what did they mean by this?  That we should go around looking for people whose life was in immediate danger, and save them at all cost?  Yes, I believe that this is indeed what they were telling us.  For in their day one might have had the opportunity to redeem a captive from kidnapping or forced labor, or one might have stumbled across two people in a violent struggle and taken the opportunity to intervene before one of them was killed.  But I also believe they were telling us more.

I believe that the rabbis were telling us that, in addition to literally saving lives, there was so much we could do to save a single life—and therefore save the world—in a figurative sense.

We learn thisfrom another passage of Talmud—Nedarim 7b—that “poverty is like death.”  The rabbis understood that “poverty is immobilizing, in the restrictions that it imposes on the health, time, and choices available to poor people.  Poverty devours the body and spirit; it brings tears of stress and sorrow to loving relationships; it devours the present and obliterates the future.  It buries the poor in a coffin of invisibility, removing them from our sight and consciousness—except, perhaps, when the ghosts of poverty make their criminal appearance on our very doorstep.”       (Jews, Money and Social Responsibility, p.113f)

The rabbis knew…and they taught us.  Poverty is like death.

“It breeds despair in the hearts of its victims, as well as in the hearts of the rest of us who, seemingly lacking the means to ‘do something’ about homelessness, hunger, AIDS, crime and other poverty-related problems, resort instead to shunning the poor, counting our blessings and building walls and moats around our good fortune.” (ibid. p.114)

In tractate Avodah Zarah, the Talmud lists a poor person as one of “four kinds of people who are regarded as if they were dead.”  Poverty is like death.

But in Bava Batra 10a we find the prescription.  Rabbi Yehudah says, “But tzedakah saves from death…”  So it is possible for us to save a life and save the world through acts of tzedakah—no immediate physical peril, and so no special prowess or heroics necessary here.  Just a little righteous giving.  Give tzedakah and save a life.  Save a life and save the world.

By extension of the rabbis thinking about tzedakah, we can imagine that there are, in fact, numerous ways in which we can “save a life”, so many ways in which we can act to save the world.  We are taught that “one who teaches a neighbor’s child is regarded as though he had given life to that child.  We can give life—we can save a life—by teaching a neighbor’s child. 

We can save a life by providing employment for someone we know who is out of work, or by assisting them in finding employment.  This is, after all, the highest rung on Maimonides’ tzedakah ladder:  “The person who helps another support himself by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for that person, thus helping that person to become self-supporting.”

And if this is true, then we can save a life in many other ways as well.

Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless.  Each of these acts of lovingkindness—g’milut chasadim in Hebrew—has the potential to be life changing, and therefore life-saving.  Visiting the sick and comforting the mourner.  

Fostering or adopting a child who is without parents, or without a stable home in which to live, may well determine that child’s fate. Providing the stable environment in which a child can heal and grow and thrive can save a life. Advocating for children who are being exploited in the workplace or traded as commodities in the sex and porn industries or sold into slavery in this country and around the world, may save them from a life of physical abuse, and ultimately from death.

This is what I believe our ancient rabbis wanted us to know and to do.  And the challenge is before us to give form to their words, through acts of tzedakah and tikkun olam.  But in our day, there is also the opportunity to save lives in the literal sense.  A true story will illustrate my point.

A few years back, when I lived in Toronto, I was contacted by the Canadian Red Cross and informed that I was a potential match for a person, unknown to me, who was awaiting a bone marrow transplant.  (Several years before this, I had been screened at a bone marrow clinic at a neighborhood synagogue.)  I remember the feeling of apprehension and anxiety that I felt, because actually being a bone marrow donor requires time and the procedure leaves the donor with some discomfort for a period following the removal of the bone marrow.  But I also remember the feeling of exhilaration.  I remember walking into the Red Cross building with my head held high, feeling like I was some kind of celebrity, and somewhat surprised that the mayor had not come by to personally welcome me.

I know now that it was because I realized that I had the potential to save someone’s life.  I had no idea who that person was, nor did they know me (Maimonides’ 7thlevel of giving).  All I knew was that I might become the instrument of someone else’s survival.  In some ways it reminded me of the feelings I had when my children were born.  And I remember how disappointed I was when, within a short span of time, I learned that the follow-up testing had shown that I was not a match for this peson after all, and I would have to keep my bone marrow to myself for the time being.  Giving a life—saving a life—is awesome and powerful.

I am surprised whenever I meet people who are not yet on the Bone Marrow Registry, through which potential matches are found for thousands of people who lie in hospital beds, with hopes fading for this last chance to be restored to health.  After all, the screening is not difficult.  A few drops of blood, fill out some forms, and in some cases pay a nominal fee to cover the lab costs for the test itself.  The ideal candidate is 18-40 years of age and in good health, but you can register even if you are older. All you need to do is go on line at BeTheMatch.com.  Similarly, we can give a gift of life at local blood donor clinics.  I am amazed that more people do not make blood donation a regular part of their schedule.

A third way that we can give a gift of life to someone else is by completing and carrying an organ transplant card with us.  I wrote about this in my Bulletin article in the spring, but it is so important as a way to save lives that I will speak about it for a few moments this evening. 

I am often approached by people who believe that Judaism is opposed to organ transplantation, because of the traditional belief in bodily resurrection in the time of the Messiah, and the requirement that of all parts of a dead body must be buried together.  In a modern Reform responsa, Rabbi Walter Jacob cites the recognized Orthodox scholar, Moshe Feinstein.  Feinstein rules that saving a life is the highest priority, and therefore such transplants are certainly permitted, but that in addition, any body part that is transplanted into another person, such as bone or eyes, even if not life saving, becomes a part of a living body, and is therefore no longer connected to the dead body in any way, and does not require burial with the dead body. The State of California gives us the right to identify specific organs for transplant if we wish, or to leave that to the medical practitioners whose skills can make use of our organs to give new life to a dying person. So with these reservations set aside, there seems to me no reason why we should not all carry consent forms, and leave explicit directions in our living wills for our organs to be made available for transplantation—to save a life.

And finally, there is the matter of saving our own lives.  This is the time to commit ourselves to lifestyle changes that will contribute to our own good health and well being.  If you are one of the increasingly small number of folks who have not already done so, this is the time to stop smoking.  If you have not already done so, this is the time to stop using non-prescription drugs.  If you have not already done so, this is the time to lower your cholesterol.  I know, because I have been working to lower mine.  Regular exercise, less stress, less chemicals in our food and on our lawns.  Whatever it might be that you have been flirting with to live a healthier life, this is the time. To save a life.  To save your own life.

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau takes an apartment in the Old City, overlooking the Western Wall.  Every day when she looks out, she sees an old man praying vigourously.  So the journalist goes down to the wall and introduces herself to the old man.


“You come every day to the wall,” she says.  “How long have you done that, and what are you praying for?”


The old man replies, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years.  In the morning, I pray for world peace and for the brotherhood of man.  Then I go home, have a cup of tea, and after that I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.”


The journalist is amazed.  “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” she asks.


And the old man replies, calmly… “Like I’m talking to a wall.”

Each year we come here on Rosh Hashanah, and we pray for good things to happen in the year ahead.  Each year we come searching for a way to make our world a little better, searching for a way to make a difference.  But if each year we only pray, then go home to have a cup of tea, as it were, and then return only to pray again, sooner or later we will get the feeling that we are talking to a wall.

So this year, I am asking that each one of you add actions to your prayers.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, a home to a child who needs it, employment for someone who is out of work.  Put yourself on the bone marrow registry, donate blood regularly, fill out your organ donation form, live healthier lives.

You don’t have to do them all.  But if each of us did just one of these things.  If, in the words of Kol Nidre, “between this 2024 and the next, may we reach it in peace,” each of us saves just one life—together we can save the world.