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Rabbi Akiva said what?

The great second-century sage was a champion of the ethical and moral path. Yet, in a discussion found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava M’tzia 62a, he says something seemingly shocking.

Keeping the faith – One religious perpective on issues of the day “[It was taught:] Two people were traveling and one of them had a flask of water in his hand. If both drink, they would die; and if one of them drinks, he would reach settlement…. [Said Akiva, ‘In Leviticus 25:36, it states,] “The life of your brother is with you.” [This means that] your life takes precedence over the life of your fellow.'”

In other words, do not share the water. Drink it, even though it means your companion will die.

Akiva’s “me first” view becomes the norm. This is not altogether surprising, given a discussion earlier in the same tractate (Bava M’tzia 2:11), in which “me first” is applied in a case involving lost objects.

There is no selfishness here. Rather, the sages of blessed memory were stating a basic truth: You cannot help someone else if you, too, need help.

Of great significance is the text on which Akiva hangs his ruling. The text is part of a section that requires – requires – all Israel to see to the needs of the less fortunate among us. If someone is in need of basic necessities, the Torah requires us to help that person. Akiva interprets the phrase “live with you” to mean that your obligation is to give no more than what you can give. It is absurd and counterproductive for someone to give so much that he or she ends up also needing help.

That being said, what does “me first” really mean? Clearly, it means each individual must see to his or her needs before seeing to the needs of others. It also means, however, that having seen to one’s own needs, a person must see to the needs of those around him or her, and then work his or way outwards.

Rambam, in his Mishnah Torah Gifts to the Poor 7:13, puts it this way: “A poor relative takes precedence to all others; a poor member of one’s household takes precedence over the poor of one’s city; the poor of one’s city take precedence over the poor of another city; as it is said [in Deuteronomy 15:11, ‘For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:] open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.'”

Our community is “our land,” in Rambam’s definition, and like so many other communities, it is in a deepening crisis. Jewish Family Service of Bergen County offers but one example of just how bad things are – and how much worse they are likely to become. According to Lisa Fedder, its executive director, “People are already coming in record numbers to ask for concrete help with their bills and to put food on their tables. They need help finding employment and are seeking counseling around issues that stress can cause. Substance abuse and domestic violence are on the rise. We anticipate demand for JFS services to further increase over the next few months at a cost of as much as $174,000 – money we do not have. This emergency is real….”

Without “substantial help,” she says, JFS will have to turn people away. Some estimates say this can begin to happen as early as next month.

The story is the same at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of North Jersey, in Wayne.

The communally-run nursing homes in our area, the Jewish Home at Rockleigh and the Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, provide services beyond their own facilities that are invaluable to seniors and shut-ins. Rockleigh’s meals-on-wheels program, for example, is a saver of lives in a very real sense. It takes money to run such programs and that money is running out.

This story is repeated from social service agency to social service agency and from synagogue to synagogue. Rabbis’ discretionary funds especially are often the last resort for the desperate among us, yet those funds depend on donations and those donations are drying up. There were always people whom rabbis and others could depend on to offer help. Ironically, some of those same people today are the ones who need our help.

There should be no such crisis here in northern New Jersey. This arguably is the richest Jewish community in the United States. The problem is that too many people do not understand the full meaning of “me first.” They donate to faraway places or to myriad other Jewish organizations and causes. Many are worthy – but they are not what Torah law, written or oral, had in mind when it obligated us to tzedakah. In no way would Rambam, for example, regard certain well-known Jewish organizations as serving “the poor of another city.” Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, protecting the abused are where that obligation lies – first in our own communities and then in other places around the world.

As Akiva stated, “‘The life of your brother is with you.’ [This means that] your life takes precedence over the life of your fellow.” In communal terms, the lives of people here take precedence over the needs elsewhere. Furthermore, the lives of people elsewhere take precedence over organizations and institutions regardless of the good work they may do.

That is the way it was two millennia ago and that is how it remains today. Thus, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a teshuvah on charitable giving, states that an individual may donate to whomever he or she pleases and without taking greater need into account, but only “from among those who are eligible to receive charity.” The community, on the other hand, must “give precedence to those in greater need, e.g., food before clothing.” (See Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah I, 144.)

This teshuvah says a number of things. First, “need” is defined as the basics of life – food and clothing and, by extension, shelter and anything else a person needs to survive. Second, an individual can decide to help Yehudah even though Levi is in greater need, but the community as a whole must prioritize need. Third, the obligation to give tzedakah is fulfilled only by giving to “those who are eligible to receive charity,” meaning someone in need of food, clothing, and shelter.

In other words, an individual cannot fulfill his or her charitable giving by donating to national or international organizations, even those that help the poor in other lands – and certainly not while both Yehudah and Levi down the street are destitute.

One final word: We are a sectarian-divided community – a sin in itself – but there is no “them vs. us” here. We all are us. Just because you do not keep kosher does not mean that you can turn your back on people who do. Just because you are Sabbath-observant does not mean you can turn your back on people who are not. Whatever stream one belongs to, whatever form of Jewish belief one holds, kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh. All Israel, says the Talmud (BT Shevu-ot 39a), is responsible one for another. There was never any means test for saving a human life, and certainly not a religious test. On the other hand, there was and will always be the word of the Lord (see Deuteronomy 15:10):

“If there is a needy person among you, “Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so….'”