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By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky | Series: | Level:

Two questions were sent dealing with the fact that the Mishna in Sanhedrin writes specifically about saving a Jewish life:

1. Why does the Mishnah say “Jewish Life”? Doesn’t this concept apply to any human life?

2. Please explain the position of the gentile in your last shiur….a gentile was also descended from Adam…. is the life of a gentile any less. since we know that there are righteous men placed into each nation by Hashem?

A complete and proper answer to these questions goes beyond the scope of these shiurim, and this isn’t really the forum to deal with it. And our “politically correct” culture doesn’t make the task any easier. But I will try to provide some response to these questions.

A very simple answer to the question of why the Mishna equated specifically a Jewish life to the entire world would be based on the context of the Mishna itself. If you study the Mishna, you see that it is teaching us of the threats that were used to scare witnesses from testifying falsely, which could lead to a wrongful execution. Since the witnesses in the Mishna are testifying about a Jew, with the goal of having him executed, they are told that each Jew – including the one about whom they are testifying — is equated with the entire world. This is said to them in order that they rethink their testimony. Nothing is being implied about the relative worth of a Jewish life vs. a non-Jewish life.)

But a deeper answer will call upon what we have written a number of times in the name of the Maharal: We are supposed to use Rabbinic texts to build our understanding of reality and the world which G-d created. We are used to hearing this Mishna quoted in support of the general value of human life. It is from that perspective, I believe, that the questions were begin asked. That perspective would imply that the Rabbis were speaking to people who weren’t sensitive to the fact aware that a human life is a very precious thing, and they wrote a statement as hyperbole, to convince us that human life is something REALLY important. We must remember the Maharal’s admonishment that Rabbinic texts and lessons are not supposed to be interpreted as hyperbole, and that they aren’t written to teach us things that we can figure out for ourselves. And a careful reading of the Maharal on our Mishna shows a very different understanding than the conventional use of this statement.

The Maharal has understood that the Mishna is not teaching us about the quantitative value of a life, but rather the conceptual framework of the creation of man. To summarize it in the most elementary way, man was created, given power in this world, and given the ability to choose to accept – or fail to accept – G-d as the Creator and Ruler to Whom man is responsible. This is what the Maharal means when he writes “According to the fundamental wisdom of the design of the world, one man would have been sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the human being in the world .”

Once Adam sinned, and man began reproducing, this message needed to be acknowledged by the entire human race. At the end of twenty generations, this responsibility was placed upon Avraham and his descendants through Yitzchak and Yakov. This is the meaning of the Jewish people being a “Chosen People,” chosen to bring the message of G-d’s unity to the world, and of man’s responsibility to serve Him. This is the mission of the Jewish people, and anyone can choose to join this mission, by undertaking the responsibilities that it entails. According to the Maharal, the statement equating the saving of one Jewish life with saving the entire world refers to the ability of that life to fulfill the ultimate purpose and mission of man in creation. Therefore, while every life is precious and valuable, the mission of bringing the world to its ultimate purpose hinges on a Jewish life.)

The Mishna in Sanhedrin continues: And [another reason why man was created as a single individual was] because of people, that one person shouldn’t declare “My father was greater than your father.” But this is difficult to understand. The implication is that if the world had originated with numerous individuals, rather than only one person, the claim “My father was greater than your father” might be a justifiable one. But in the present, at this advanced stage of human development with many different groups of people alive, why does the origin of humanity from a single individual make this claim less justifiable?

The answer is that since the origin is one, even though now they are divided into groups and classes, that single origin serves as a unifying element, preventing (hopefully!!) provocations and jealousy among people. Had people descended from more than one origin, this would have most certainly led to increased divisiveness and provocations.

The Mishna in Sanhedrin continues further: “… so that the heretics shouldn’t say that there are numerous dominions in the heavens.” Since everything in the lower world is under the control of man, and man is the element which brings completion to the world, it is man that creates a unified the world. While there can be many creations in the world, if there had been more than one man created, he would have been a force of further division in creation, rather than being a unifying force. A world lacking a unifying force would have led to the perception that the world has more than one Creator. One Creator should have created a unified world, while multiple creators would create a fragmented world. A world with an underlying unity and integrity indicates that its Creator is One. Therefore, man, as the consummating element of the world, was created as an individual, a single man, reflecting the unity of the Creator.

And the Mishna in Sanhedrin continues: “And to tell of the greatness of G-d…” It doesn’t mean that the act of making each person different would be the only way G-d could indicate His greatness, since there are other ways for G-d to demonstrate His greatness. What it means is that had Adam (as the first man) not been created as a single individual, human beings of perfection would not be similar to each other. In fact, there is an underlying commonality in the design and purpose (tzurah) of each human being, [and their perfection is rooted in their replication of the qualities of Adam]. Yet at the same time, there must be a way to distinguish between them, with each person being identifiably unique. Otherwise, it would be impossible to recognize a person with whom one was originally speaking, if he wanted to continue a conversation with him.

These last two sentences are the language of the Maharal, and they needs explanation. The Maharal certainly isn’t attributing the need for identifiable individuality to simple logistics and pragmatics, “How will I identify the person with whom I was speaking yesterday?” Rather, it is something much more fundamental. “Speaking to someone” can mean creating a connection and relationship with that person, which is one of the uses of the word “speaking” in Talmudic terminology. (See Ketuboth 13a and other places.) And it can, of course, mean working together for accomplishments, which would be impossible if one couldn’t recognize the person, and the talents of the one with whom he began working. It is the individuality of the other that enables us create a relationship with another. And it is the individual talents that enable people to work together for greater accomplishments than any one person could achieve on his own – or with another half a dozen clones of himself. The source of much divisiveness is rooted in our expectation that other people think and behave exactly the same way we do.)

The class is taught by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky,Dean of Darche Noam Institutions, YeshivatDarche Noam/Shapell’s and Midreshet Rachel for Women.