Obviously, this is not the conduct of Talmidei Chachamim. Aside from being rude, it’s not effective. Such protesting will not make someone pull over and walk. At best, it might make driving through certain areas unappealing. Perhaps thats the goal. But this runs the obvious risk of further distancing Jews from one another. In short, it’s a bad idea.
Thus is was surprising when the students of the Brisker Rov heard their famed teacher quietly protesting “SHABBOS” as a car drove by one Shabbos morning. And it was an ambulance.
“Rebbe” they wondered, “What good will it do? And the ambulance is allowed to drive on Shabbos. We all know that saving a life takes precedence!”
“Yes” replied the Brisker Rov, “You are correct. But I didn’t want Shabbos to become any less important in my mind. So I protested to myself.”
In that spirit, this is a protest. A protest that might not teach any new values but it must have an effect. Not on others, but on ourselves.
The value we are protesting, is in defense of the sanctity of human life.
A week ago the Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed the critically endangered silverback gorilla Harambe after a small boy fell into his enclosure. Then came the outrage, and the myriad of questions. Animal behavior experts argued the gorilla didn’t have to die. People questioned why not use a tranquilizer dart? Some animal rights activists looked at this incident as a prime example of why zoos shouldn’t exist in the first place. Online onlookers unleashed anger at the boy’s parents for not keeping a closer eye on him; questioning their competence as parents. Fingers were pointed at the zoo. How could anyone build an enclosure that a child could get into? Twitter lit up with the hashtag #JusticeForHarambe.
Make no mistake. We, as Jews, and as people have an obligation this planet and it’s inhabitants, as both caretakers and cultivators. This charge was handed down from God to Adam when He invested mankind with the duty לעבדה ולשמרה - To work and to guard. When an animal becomes extinct due to greed and negligence, we must bear a level of responsibility.
But this was not the case in the Cincinnati Zoo.
The Torah instructs us, that beyond all other obligations, there is a mitzvah to preserve life. Of all the 613 mitzvos, we transgress all but three to preserve a life. With the three exceptions being Idol Worship - abandonment of God, Murder - the destruction of another person, and Sexual Immorality - the destruction of personal morality and interpersonal relationships.
For all the rest, Shabbos, Kashrus, Yom Kippur, Pesach - We invoke וחי בהם - You should live by them.
It’s so painfully obvious to even say it, but yes, any question; even a question of a question when a child’s life is in danger? The life of a child is more important that the gorilla. Period. There is no room to debate; this is our most formative value. The sanctity of life.
The Shulchan Aruch, OC, 328:2 rules:
מי שיש לו חולי של סכנה מצוה לחלל עליו את השבת והזריז הרי זה משובח והשואל הרי זה שופך דמים:
One who is deathly ill, or in grave danger, one is obligated to transgress Shabbos for them.
One who expedient in doing so is praiseworthy, and one who stops to ask has spilled blood.
Such is the understanding of Halacha. Questioning and failing to act immediately in a potentially life threatening situation deems a person “one who spilled blood.”
This Shabbos, however, I also shared the comment of the Mishna Berura there, who explains:
ובירושלמי איתא הנשאל הרי זה מגונה פי’ משום שהתלמיד חכם במקומו היה לו לדרוש בפרקא לכל כדי שידעו כל העם ולא יצטרכו לשאלו
(Paraphrasing) The text from the Yerushalmi places blame, not on the questioner, by on the one who is asked the question. Meaning the Rabbi. It is the Rabbi’s sacred duty to educate to all that Life takes precedence over Shabbos.
Indeed, the Rebbe of Izbica, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner in the Mei HaShiloach teaches that this is the lesson of the obscure mitzvah of Erchin.
We read of the tragedies that will befall the Jewish people. Every curse and calamity that we might suffer; that we have suffered, and when it’s all done the Torah teaches us about Erchin.
It’s the service by which a person donates their own value, their fields, or animals to the Beis HaMikdash. Says the Mei HaShiloach, this is to teach that no matter what happens we never lose our intrinsic worth. That each person is inherently valuable.
We pray for a time when such decisions need not be made, and the wisdom choose correctly until that time comes.