Whose life takes precedence? Your own or someone else's? Imagine you are traveling with another person in a desert with but one pitcher of water that belongs to you. If you were to share your water with the other individual, it is certain that both of you will die. Your only chance of survival is to keep all of the water that you own for yourself.
This question has been debated in the Talmud and resolved by Rabbi Akiva on the basis of a verse in this week’s parsha. The Torah states: “:And your brother shall live with you.” This verse teaches us that your life takes precedence over your brothers life.” (Talmud, Bava Metzia 62a)
In that passage, the Talmud records the opinion another sage, Ben Patura, who maintains that one should divide the water between the two of them, “it is better that they both drink and die, rather than one see the death of the other.“ It was Rabbi Akiva who cited the foregoing verse that challenged the view of Ben Patura.
We must understand the logic of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, based on the verse in this week’s parsha. Why should one not be required to divide the water between the two of them, so that they both live at least a while longer? Furthermore, wouldn’t it be more heroic and righteous to split the water between the two, as Ben Patura maintained?
To understand this matter, it is necessary to appreciate the view of Judaism concerning the importance of maintaining one’s own life.
It is well known that Jewish law outlaws and condemns suicide. A person, in his right mind, who takes his own life , is considered to have committed a crime more heinous than murder.
(It should be noted that despite the harsh attitude the Torah takes towards suicide, in practice the rabbis were rather lenient. This is due to two factors: First, a person who commits suicide is almost always not in his/her right mind. Consequently, they cannot be held liable for any crime they might commit. Secondly, the Talmud states that if the suicide victim was conscious for even a few seconds after inflicting the fatal wound or jumping from a high point etc., it is assumed that s/he expressed regret and is thus considered to have atoned for his/her crime. This lenient attitude expressed by the Talmudic rabbis, does not, however, detract from the serious nature of suicide.
Why is suicide deemed more serious than murder?
One explanation is that In reality, our life is not ours. Our lives belong to G-d who has “leased” it to us for the express purpose of using it to serve
G-d, by refining and changing ourselves and the world in which we live.
When one takes their own life, they are, in essence really taking a life that is not their own, but G-d’s. It is no different from taking another person’s life.
In addition to being an act of murder, suicide, also terminates ones special “lease”: agreement that G-d has given us when we were born. One has thus frustrated the very purpose for which one was created. Suicide is therefore a double crime: it is murder and the rejection of one’s mission in life.
When one’s life is in conflict with another person’s life, the Torah says that one's life takes precedence over the other. The logic is simple: Both lives are precious. Both lives are G-d’s and killing them is tantamount to an attack against G-d. Indeed, this is why, according to the Midrash, the first commandment (“I am the L-rd your G-d”) is situated (if one reads the commandments horizontally rather than vertically) next to the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”) Murder is a denial of
and an affront to G-d. But, to take one’s own life is to also repudiate one’s responsibility and very purpose of existence. Thus the responsibility one has to one’s own life is greater than the responsibility one has to any other life.
The issues of suicide an euthanasia have become very popular in modern times. Since we are in the verge of entering into a new age where we will fully appreciate the true nature of life as a manifestation of the Divine in the world, we are now also experiencing the greatest challenge to life. Accordingly, we should focus more attention on the meaning and sanctity of life, in preparation for the age when we will all experience eternal and essential life.