There is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”
The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”
To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.
The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.
But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.
Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?
As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).
The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.
Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.
We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!
I often read a few lines or Project Genesis, and then go on to “more important” matters. But this time, reading Rabbi Menken’s thoughts struck me profoundly. I recall being quizzed as a high schooler about five people in a row boat with only enough supplies for three; who to throw overboard?
Rabbi Menken’s teaching reminds me of one answer I heard: He said he would give himself as the first to leave the boat and leave the rest to decide what to do, but his “contribution” would be to lighten the load of the decision! I think he must have thought along the lines of Rabbi Menken.
I pray daily for the “peace of Jerusalem” and that G-d will bless Israel and its people.
Thanx for such uplifting and beautiful encouragement!
Jack Benny did that joke on his radio show in the 1940s. Though he was kind and generous in real life, his radio persona was that of a vain, self-involved miser.
If memory serves, he was walking home from a dinner party at the house of his neighbors, Ronald Colman (the movie star) and his wife Bonita, who played themselves when they appeared on Benny’s show. A mugger stopped him and said, “Your money or your life,” and the joke played out from there.
Did Jack Benny get the joke from our tradition? He was Jewish, of course, but I don’t recall hearing the joke except on his show.
To whom it may concern:
I enjoyed this article, but found one statement that puzzled me. It was where the author said that we cannot pull the lever to save the five people tied to the trolley track. Why? Is the possible lost one person’s life more valuable than the lives of the five? I think not. All life is sacred and should be respected and preserved wherever possible. However, I believe the needs of the many outweigh the need of the few, even the one. So I would certainly pull the lever.