In commenting on the verse "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger," Rashi
notes: "To observe his death when you are able to save him."
What novel insight does Rashi provide by stating "when you are able to save him" -- surely, we are speaking of a situation where the rescuer can save him; could we possibly think that the person transgresses this command when he can't save him?!
Indeed, Rashi is not out to explain the simple meaning of the words "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger," for this is self-explanatory. Rather, he comes to answer a difficulty in the language of the verse:
Since the intention of the verse is that a person is to do all he can to save his neighbor, why does the verse state this in the negative, "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger," rather than in the positive -- "Save your neighbor when his life is in danger"?
From the above we understand that the verse does not come to simply teach us that we are to save our friend from death. Particularly, since we are already commanded to do all we can to assist our neighbor in saving his property and money from damage and loss, we are most assuredly obligated to save his life.
Rather, the novelty in this verse lies in the manner that we are obligated to save his life -- something that we would not know from another verse. The verse stresses this by stating this in the negative -- "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger," indicating a situation where there may be an inclination to say that it is permissible to "stand still" and refrain from assisting our friend. Concerning such a situation the Torah commands us, "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger."
Specifically, this refers to circumstances wherein saving the life of the person involves risking one's own life. In such an instance we may well say that a person may (and possibly, must) "stand still" so that he does not place his own life in jeopardy. The verse therefore comes to tell us that even under these conditions -- as long as he stands a good chance that his own life will not be placed in danger -- "Do not stand still ... [for] your neighbor's life is in danger."
On the other hand, if jeopardizing one's life would also place in jeopardy the entire success of the rescue, then it is logical to say that the person is not obligated to risk his life to save his neighbor. For since the rescue mission itself is then in jeopardy, the person does not have to place his own life in danger when the very rescue is itself in doubt.
This is why Rashi adds the words "when you are able to save him": Although the Torah commands "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger" and one is obligated to place his life in possible danger in order to save the life of another, this only applies when one is sure that he will be able to save the other person's life -- "when you are able to save him." However, when the possible danger to self places the entire rescue in question, then he may "stand still" -- he need not place his own life in danger.
There is a saying of the Baal Shem Tov, that whatever one sees or hears serves as a lesson in divine service. We may well say that Rashi alludes to this when he writes, "To observe his death when you are able to save him," i.e., the very fact that you see your friend in such a circumstances indicates that "you are able to save him." For if this were not the case, why are you seeing this, when "Nothing was created by G-d" -- including this sight of your friend's predicament -- "in vain."
Herein lies a clear lesson to our generation in particular, when many of our brethren are in danger -- G-d forbid -- of actual spiritual extinction. The Torah commands us "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger," we are all obligated to do whatever we can to save and enervate their souls and lives.
Should one's evil inclination say to the person, "Am I conceivably capable of saving another's life?" we have Rashi's response, "To observe his death when you are able to save him" -- the very fact that you were made aware of the situation is the most powerful indication that in fact "you are able to save him."
G-d has granted us the ability together with the responsibility of disseminating Torah and Torah true Judaism, so as to save the lives of those of our neighbors who might otherwise face a spiritual demise. We literally save their spiritual lives when we see to it that they lead lives of Torah and mitzvos.
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXXII, pp. 120-126.
- (Back to text) Vayikra 19:16.
- (Back to text) With regard to the practical Halachic implications, see Encyclopedia Talmudis, article on Hatzalas Nefashos ch. 2, and places cited there.
- (Back to text) See addendum to Keser Shem Tov (Kehot edition) section 127ff.
- (Back to text) Shabbos 77b.