What is our obligation to aid people in trouble

Shabbat Hagadol


Leviticus 14:1-15:33

Malachi 3:4-24

The Olympic swimmer sits beside the pool, reading his newspaper and enjoying the morning sun, while a cute toddler plays in the shallow end. When the toddler loses her balance, the swimmer glances at her struggles and then returns to his newspaper. Later, he looks up and discovers that she has drowned.

"Year in and year out, all over the country, in a kind of initiation rite, first-year law students have been challenged by their professors of torts or criminal law to come up with a theory to support legal redress against the swimmer who watches while the toddler drowns. The class labors mightily, but in vain. One by one, their ideas are shot down" (Mary Ann Glendon, "Rights Talk").

In American law, as these student learn, there exists "no duty to rescue a person in danger." The courts recognize a duty to rescue if the disinclined rescuer has some prior relationship with the victim (say, mother, or lifeguard) or caused the accident in the first place.

In the past 30 years, Vermont and Minnesota and perhaps a few other states have passed legislation supporting the duty to intervene on behalf of endangered people. It is a new phenomenon, Glendon asserts, since "affirmative legal duties to come to the aid of another were unknown, not only in Anglo-Saxon law, but in most other primitive legal systems," systems that can barely keep up with prohibiting concrete acts of violence.

The duty to assist certainly exists in the biblical legal system: "Do not stand by your brother's blood" (Leviticus 19:16) establishes a prohibition on failing to assist, not restricted to blood relatives. The Talmud observes: "How do we know that if someone sees his fellow drowning in the river or a wild beast dragging him off, or bandits coming upon him, that he is duty bound to save him? Because it is stated: 'Do not stand by your brother's blood'" (Sanhedrin 73a).

We can see other aspects of the biblical demands on the mere bystander. What we call a witness in English, in Hebrew we call an eid. The English word comes from the archaic word "wit," meaning, knowledge (still used in the expression "half-wit" and "nit-wit"). The English witness knows something.

The Hebrew word comes from odeid, to encourage, to assist, to help, as in "The Lord protects strangers, he encourages the widow and the orphan" (Psalms 146:9). A mad etymologist might believe that the English word "aid," comes from this Hebrew root. The Hebrew eid helps.

Even in a court case, the Hebrew bystander does not just know and report on what he has seen. In biblical law, the witness carries out the punishment as well. When the court orders an execution, compelled by the testimony of witnesses, "the hand of the witnesses shall be first" to carry out the punishment (Deuteronomy 17:7).

In this week's haftarah, the prophet describes God as "a swift witness" (Malachi 3:5). A hard phrase to comprehend, in English, for an English witness has little use for swiftness. In Hebrew, the witness moves swiftly toward executing justice.

Perhaps I hear an echo in this verse of a long-past time, when central authorities appeared weak and far away. In those days, in those places, people depended on an informal method of securing justice. In England in the 1200s, someone who saw a crime or the victim raised a "hue-and-cry," and his fellows rushed out to punish the felon. I surmise that a similar process must have existed thousands of years earlier, in the old biblical lands, when a fit and powerful witness might have carried out justice immediately.

While my reading of the difficult phrase, "swift witness," amounts to speculation, I stand on firm ground when I assert that biblical law insists on our duty to rescue, our obligation to help those in trouble.