Friday, January 28, 2011

First, Do No Harm

Primum non nocere is a Latin phrase that is a foundational element of the Hippocratic Oath (the pledge taken by new doctors). Although the exact origin of the phrase in unknown, the essence of its translation is extremely important: "First, do no harm." In other words, when a problem presents itself, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk doing more harm than good. Medical students are taught this under the principle of nonmaleficence in medical ethics, especially when it comes to emergency medical services.

An example of this concept in practice can be seen when a professional sports player sustains a serious injury. Team trainers have learned to use precautionary measures when tending to the injured player. They are concerned, first and foremost, with not making the injury worse. Especially in the case of an apparent neck or spinal injury, they do not want to exacerbate the problem by forcing the body into a position that could cause permanent damage. Therefore, they start by simply immobilizing the body, and only engage in further action when more is known. Such an approach has not only helped in saving professional sports careers, but also in saving lives. While this concept is generally connected to the medical profession, it can apply just as well to other areas of life.

People have often debated which formulation of the Golden Rule is better: the positive formulation (i.e. love your neighbor as yourself), or the negative formulation (i.e. do not do unto others that which you don't want done unto you). While the positive formulation certainly sounds nicer, why is it that a Torah scholar like Hillel preferred to use the negative formulation? When articulating the underlying principle of Judaism, he said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study" (Shabbat 31a). Couldn't he have simply said something to the effect of "Love other people" as the opening line?

Herein lies the wisdom behind Hillel's response. Instead of driving ourselves crazy trying to figure out all the details of how to act lovingly toward others, a negative formulation of the Golden Rule forces us to think about how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of our own interpersonal conduct. For example, before speaking harshly about someone else, a person should consider whether they would find it okay if someone else spoke in such a manner about them. Engaging in this quick ethical test is within everyone's capacity. This could also be the reason why most of the Ten Commandments are phrased as "Thou shalt not." It may not sound as pleasant, but it is infinitely more effective.

This is not to overlook a sage like Rabbi Akiva, who uses the positive formulation, "To love your neighbor as yourself is the major principle of the Torah." However, after people hear such a statement, they often wonder how to properly fulfill the commandment. For example, does it mean we are obligated to love every single person, both Jew and gentile, both good and evil, and if so, to what extent? The questions are endless, and it can take a lifetime of study to uncover sufficient answers. However, when people hear a negative formulation of the Golden Rule, it becomes much easier to incorporate into their daily lives. First, the basic value of not hurting others is inculcated, and then one can go on to learn all the details of how to lead an ethical life. As Hillel states, "The rest is commentary. Now, go and study."

Before we can be good people, we must first not be bad people. Or, to put it another way, before we do a specific action, it would be wise to ask ourselves whether or not our behavior will inflict harm on someone else. Anyone can rationalize that their intentions were pure, but few people can withstand the unforeseen consequences of their actions. The more we interfere in the lives of others, the more of a chance we may hurt them. Obviously, this doesn't mean that we should shy away from helping those in need. It simply means we have to be fairly certain that what we're doing has a good chance of actually helping. Remember . . . primum non nocere.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Kindness of a Stranger

Over the past week, a story of extraordinary kindness has been circulating. Mark Dickinson was trying to catch a flight from Los Angeles to Denver in order to see his dying grandson. The boy, Caden Rogers, would eventually die from severe injuries he received when his mother's boyfriend violently threw him across the room. But Dickinson desperately wanted to get to the hospital before the boy would be taken off life support. To do so, he needed the compassion of airport workers and the kindness of a Southwest Airlines pilot.

While he was frantically making his way through the airport, his wife, Nancy, called ahead to explain the situation to airline employees. To his amazement, when he finally made it to the gate twelve minutes late, both the ticketing agent and pilot were waiting. They said, "Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we're so sorry about the loss of your grandson." As Dickinson walked alongside the pilot to board the plane, he told him, "I can't thank you enough for this." The pilot responded, "They can't go anywhere without me and I wasn't going anywhere without you."

Here is the story in his own words:

In a world in which there is a great deal of evil, there is also a great deal of good. You just have to look for it. Not only was it refreshing to see someone use their position of authority for good, it was also terrific to see gratitude on behalf of the recipient of this act of kindness. Although there are times when a situation appears to be nothing but bad, everyday people can go out of their way to engage in goodness and provide solace for complete strangers.

After hearing about this heartwarming story, I thought of Micah 6:8 - where we are told that all God truly wants from us is "to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" - and how the pilot fulfilled each of the three criteria mentioned in the verse:

1) He acted justly by holding the plane.

2) He showed a love for kindness by helping a grieving grandparent.

3) He remained humble before God by not making a big deal about it.

In any given situation, a person can achieve this trifecta. An anonymous pilot made the best of his opportunity. May we, too, be worthy of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Redeeming Gilad Shalit

In the previous post, I mentioned how the plight of Jonathan Pollard is an example of how we can be forced into unity due to circumstances beyond our control. Unfortunately, this is not the only example. Over the past several years, the case of Gilad Shalit has been at the forefront. Since the summer of 2006, he has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza (to the best of our knowledge). Once again, Jews of all walks of life have been united in their concern over Gilad's safe release.

Pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives, can be traced all the way back to Abraham (Genesis 14). When he learned that his nephew Lot had been captured by soldiers who attacked Sodom, he gathered over 300 people and pursued the opposing army. Shortly thereafter, Abraham and his men defeated the invaders and rescued Lot, along with others who were being held hostage. The significance of redeeming captives is also alluded to in the first of the Ten Commandments. God begins by saying, "I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). Rabbenu Bachya comments that God could have simply referred to Himself as the "Creator of heaven and earth," but wanted to mention the importance of redeeming captives - in this case, 600,000 Jews - which is considered even greater than the wonder of Creation.

Given the importance of this mitzvah, and the ramifications of action or inaction, there are different philosophical approaches when it comes to pidyon shevuyim. Among them are redeeming captives under any circumstances and redeeming captives only when the price is reasonable. These conflicting factors continue to haunt Israeli officials and citizens alike. On the one hand, no soldier can be left behind. On the other hand, at what price can a deal be negotiated (which would likely include the release of convicted terrorists) without putting more people in jeopardy?

From a moral and halachic perspective, both sides of this issue have legitimate arguments. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this dilemma. As is often the case in life, the choice is not between good and bad, but between bad and worse. While we must continue to do our best to affect Gilad's release, his redemption is ultimately in God's hands. To add to Rabbenu Bachya's analysis, not only is redeeming captives considered greater than Creation itself, it also appears to be just as remarkable to accomplish.

One thing we can do as a larger Jewish family is control how we treat one another. If nothing else, we can help Gilad in that sense. Instead of simply feeling sorry for his predicament, we can create an immeasurable spiritual merit on his behalf through our behavior. In this way, Gilad will not just be passively suffering at the hands of terrorists; he will be actively helping the entire Jewish world. He's going through torment beyond what any of us can imagine. Our daily interactions with difficult people pale in comparison. In the scheme of things, is it really worth it to act condescendingly towards - or outright defame - another Jew? If all else fails in preventing indecent interpersonal behavior, think of Gilad.

You'd be amazed by what you can accomplish when you put aside your ego and sincerely care about the welfare of someone else.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Case in Point: Jonathan Pollard

On this blog, I often mention that if we don't unite under our own volition, we will be forced to do so under less than ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, the predicament of Jonathan Pollard is a prime example. As Pollard enters his 26th year in prison for a crime that usually receives 2 to 4 years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other leading Jewish figures have made a public plea for clemency. Jews from all major denominational and political backgrounds are uniting in their call for Pollard's release. Indeed, over the past two decades, Jews of all walks of life have pleaded for mercy from American presidents on Pollard's behalf.

Recently, a short video was put together on this issue:

Just to be clear, Pollard did commit a crime by passing classified information (albeit to Israel, a democratic ally) and did deserve to receive a minor prison sentence. However, he has been there - often in solitary confinement - above and beyond what any comparable criminal has received, and he most certainly does not deserve a life sentence. We must continue to do our best to achieve his release via a presidential pardon. This is about pursuing justice and trying to alleviate the suffering of Jonathan and his devoted wife, Esther, who tirelessly makes the case for his freedom. Sadly, her husband continues to deteriorate physically.

There are those who wonder whether or not Jews asking for Pollard's release are simply having an ethnocentric, knee-jerk reaction for someone who actually deserves a severe sentence. However, the more objectively one looks into the details of the incident and compares it to other spying cases, the more unsettling this situation becomes. There is something very disturbing about the fact that thousands of murderers and child molesters - not to mention those caught spying for America's enemies - have been released after only a few years in prison, while a man who did nothing comparable rots in a lonely cell.

It's important to strive for justice on behalf of anyone who has been the victim of injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Yet, while helping Pollard should be done simply because it is right, there is another issue at play here. In a larger sense, this case affects us all because of its anti-Semitic undertones (even though it might be uncomfortable coming to the conclusion that Pollard is being singled out because he is Jewish). Hopefully, we will figure out a way to achieve a pardon for Pollard before it is too late, and finally achieve some semblance of unity before another Jew has to go through a similar ordeal.