Shiur #12: The Infinite Value of a Human Life

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #12: The Infinite Value of a Human Life

By Rav Yitzchak Blau



They asked this question of Rabbi Tanchum from Noi:  "What is the law regarding extinguishing a lit candle for a sick person on Shabbat?" 

He began by saying: "You, Shelomo, where is your wisdom?  Where is your understanding?  Not only do your words contradict those of David your father, they even contradict each other.  David your father said: 'The dead do not praise you' (Tehillim 115:17), but you said: 'And I praise the dead, who have already died' (Kohelet 4:2).  Later on, you yourself said: 'For the live dog is better than the dead lion' (ibid. 9:4).

"This is not a contradiction.  When David said, 'The dead do not praise you,' he was saying that a person should engage in Torah and mitzvot in this world, because after death, there is no opportunity for Torah and mitzvot, and God will have no praise from him…

"When Shelomo said: 'I praise the dead who have already died,' (he meant the following):  When the Jews sinned in the desert, Moshe stood before God and recited many prayers and supplications before Him, to no avail.  Yet when he said: 'Remember Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisra'el your servants' (Shemot 32:13), he was immediately answered.  Did not Shelomo speak well when he said: 'I praise the dead who have already died' …

"When Shelomo said that 'the live dog is better than the dead lion,' it is as Rav Yehuda said, in the name of Rav, for Rav Yehuda said, in the name of Rav: ‘What does it mean when it is written "Hashem, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I will know when I will cease" (Tehillim 39:4)?  David said before the Holy One, blessed be He:  "Master of the universe, let me know my fate."

"'He said to him: "It is a decree before me that I do not inform people of their fate."

"'"Let me know the measure of my days (the number of years I will live)."

"'"It is a decree before me that I do not inform people of the measure of their days."

"'"That I will know when (on what day) I will cease."

"'He said to him: "You will die on Shabbat."

"'"Let me die on Sunday."

"'He said to him: "The time for your son Shelomo's reign has arrived, and one reign cannot overlap another, even for a hair's breadth."

"'"Let me die on Friday."

"'He said to him: "'For one day in your courtyard is better than a thousand' (Tehillim 84:11) — one day of your sitting and studying Torah is better to me than a thousand burnt-offerings that Shelomo your son will sacrifice before me on the altar."

"'Each Shabbat day, he (David) would sit and study all day.  The day came that he was supposed to pass away. The Angel of Death came before him but he was unable to take him because his mouth did not cease from learning. 

"'He (the Angel of Death) said: "What can I do to him?"  There was an orchard behind his house, so the Angel of Death went and shook the trees.  He (David) went out to see.  He went up a ladder, the ladder collapsed beneath him, he fell silent (interrupting Torah study) and he died.

"'Shelomo sent to the Beit Midrash: "My father passed away and is lying in the sun — and my father's dogs are hungry."

"'They sent to him: "Slice up a dead animal and give it to the dogs, and place a loaf of bread or a baby on your father and move him."  Did not Shelomo speak well when he said that ‘the live dog is better than the dead lion?'

"As far as your (original) question is concerned: a candle is called a light, and the soul of a human being is called a light (Mishlei 20:27).  It is better to extinguish the light used by a human being in order to preserve the light of the Holy One, blessed be He." 

(Shabbat 30a-b)       


            This gemara powerfully conveys the immense value Halakha grants to human life.  Rabbi Tanchum's answer to the original halakhic question informs us that saving a life can override a mitzva as significant as the Sabbath.  The long aggadic interlude echoes this point: the verse from Kohelet that seemingly celebrates death must be reinterpreted.  Shelomo could not possibly have praised death; rather, he praised the dead luminaries of Jewish history.


            For many of us, the above idea immediately resonates with the themes of Rav Joseph B. Solovetichik's Halakhic Man.  There, Rav Soloveitchik argues that the man of science shows interest only in this world of physics and biology, while the standard man of religion would like to escape this limited world and move on to a transcendent plane.  Unlike the above two figures, Halakhic Man attempts to realize transcendence in this world, employing Halakha as a means for such realization. 


            According to Rav Soloveitchik, this explains why tumat meit, impurity caused by a human corpse, is the most severe form of ritual defilement.  This halakha conveys the strongly negative attitude of halakha towards death.  Unlike Socrates, we do not look forward to death as a golden chance to be released from the limiting shackles of the body.  Instead, we treasure every day of life as a precious chance to engage in Torah and mitzvot.  The world to come may be the place to receive our final reward, but "the receiving of a reward is not a religious act" (Halakhic Man, p. 32).  It is only this flesh-and-blood world that is the world of spiritual toil and accomplishment.


            The same theme finds powerful expression in the story about the end of David's life.  Why does God not offer advance notice to a person about the precise day of his death?  The Maharsha explains that God does not want a person to put off his repentance until close to his time of death.  To rephrase the Maharsha, it is a good thing for a person to live with a certain urgency so that one may accomplish in the here and now.  Presumably, this does not mean that it is healthy for a person to go about thinking that he or she will pass away at any moment; at the same time, a strong sense that the important things in life cannot be pushed off must be part of our consciousness.


            Why does David choose to spend each Shabbat in constant learning?  Rashi says that this was his method for putting off death; apparently, David knew that this would stymie the Angel of Death and he concocted a strategy for escaping his end.  Sefat Emet, in his commentary on Shabbat, offers two alternative explanations.  He cites some sources in Chazal that suggest that David perished on Shavu'ot; if so, it is natural that he would spend the entire day learning.  However, Sefat Emet notes that this explanation would not explain why David would learn each Shabbat, rather than only on Shavu'ot. 


            His second interpretation returns us to the theme of this entire aggada.  David was not learning as part of some desperate trick to cheat death.  On the contrary, knowing that each Shabbat could be his final day of life, David could not bear to waste a second of these days, and he learned constantly as an attempt to actualize a last opportunity for spiritual productivity.  More than clinging to life, David was clinging to the unique opportunity to do mitzvot that this life offers.  Clearly, even a few hours of such accomplishments are worthy of our efforts and concern.


            Hashem's response to David's request to slightly alter the date also furthers our theme.  God does not move David's death up a single day to Friday because every day of David's achievement in Torah is precious.  Perhaps David internalizes this divine message, as revealed in his choice or how to spend his last day on this earth.


            The halakhic answer from the Beit Midrash further reinforces the ultimate significance of life and even applies such value to the lives of animals.  Rashi mentions two explanations for how the sages' answer reveals the value of a dog's life.  While a dead human body required the halakhic method of placing a loaf of bread upon him in order to move it, other items can be moved in a direct fashion for the sake of feeding the dogs.


            Additionally, the Beit Midrash chooses to answer the question about the dogs before the question about the human body.  This is particularly striking in light of the fact that Shelomo mentions the question concerning David first.  The Beit Midrash reverses the order, thereby indicating the priority of an animal's life over the corpse body of the king of Israel.


            Finally, it is striking how Rabbi Tanchum answers a rather straightforward halakhic question with a long aggadic lesson.  Rashi says that the setting is that of a public discourse, and Rabbi Tanchum needed to draw the attention of the less-educated masses.  Yet we can argue that the educated needed this message as well.  Rabbi Tanchum teaches that saving a life by violating Shabbat is not only a detail of our law; it reveals a value system of monumental significance.  He understood that aggada provides a wonderful tool for showing the ideals and values implicit in the details of Jewish law.