One of the main tenets of any functional society is the basic right to life. The thought of ending another person’s life should trigger a visceral reaction within any morally upstanding individual. Throughout history, those who killed others were tried and punished by the courts. Nonetheless, every society has its exceptions. Heinous criminals may be deserving of harsh punishments, and circumstance may provide one with a moral justification to end a person’s life. Scholars and lawmakers debate instances when it may be considered acceptable to end another life. For example, during wartime, does one have the legal and/or moral authority to take life? Or, when in danger, is one able to use lethal force as an act of self-defense? There is an infinite number of moral questions that relate to the taking of life. While the answer to all of these moral dilemmas is beyond the scope of a single article, an overarching principle to answer them can be found in Parashat VaYeira.
At the beginning of the Parashah, Hashem decides that He is going to destroy Sedom. He decides that He will notify Avraham Avinu, as the Pasuk (18:19) describes, “Ki YeDa’itiv LeMa’an Asher Yitzaveh Et Banav Ve’Et Beito Acharav, VeShamru Derech Hashem La’Asot Tzedakah U’Mishpat”, “For I have known him, that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice.” Hashem feels compelled to tell Avraham about the destruction of Sedom, because of the three principles that Avraham will teach his descendants:  To follow the way of Hashem,  to perform Tzedakah, and  to do justice. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Chumash, notices that the Pasuk records Avraham’s future directives to his children in an unusual order. The Pasuk mentions Avraham Avinu’s patriarchal commandment to “follow the way of Hashem” before his instruction “La’Asot Tzedakah U’Mishpat”, “to perform Tzedakah and Mishpat,” the latter of which relates to the Bnei Yisrael’s moral integrity in their interpersonal interactions. Why does the Bnei Yisrael’s relationship with G-d and His commandments supercede their performance of Tzedakah and Mishpat? Are they not one in the same? Is the implementation of Tzedakah and Mishpat not considered to be an adherence to the path of Hashem? Rav Hirsch answers that Hashem emphasizes that the Avraham would not only teach his descendants to be moral people, but to be moral with respect to the path of Hashem. True morality, explains Rav Hirsch, requires the path of G-d. After all, how can we humans, with our limited capacity, adequately decide what is moral and what is not? It is only through the internalization of what it means to be a follower of Hashem that we can truly be moral. Without Hashem, how can we determine what is right and what is wrong? Without Hashem’s guidance, what makes our decisions to kill one person over another anything more than arbitrary?
Rav Dr. David Shabtai, in a talk on the Halachic perspective on brain death, pointed out that the American Medical Association standard for death is based on nothing more than a committee ruling. What were their motivations? How did they reach their definition of death? While it is true that their arguments may have been scientific and logical in nature, without a higher moral authority, there would be no way for us to determine whether their conclusions were actually just or moral.
At the end of the day, what makes their ethical and moral opinions better than anyone else’s? Where is the line drawn? As we see through Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s explanation of the Pasuk’s ordering of Avraham’s future instructions to the Bnei Yisrael, the answer lies in the principle that morality is not based on our perceptions and opinions, but on the infallibility of the “Derech Hashem”, “the path of G-d.”
To close, I would like to present an idea I once heard quoted from Rav Akiva Tatz. In Kedushah every day, we praise Hashem as being in another realm, “Baruch Kevod Hashem MiMekomo”, “blessed be the honor of Hashem in His place.” Why is this phrase considered to be praiseworthy? Rav Tatz explains the nature of the declaration with the following parable: A small boat in the harbor needs to drop its anchor in order to stay stationary. If it doesn’t drop its anchor, then it will be subject to the ebb and flow of the water. The captain, when deciding where to place the anchor, sees a large ship near his vessel. The larger ship seems to not move against the low tide. The captain does not anchor his boat to the large boat, but rather to a different stronger medium, the ground. If the captain were to anchor his ship into the other ship, he might be safe from the movements of the low tide. However, when the water gets a little choppier, and larger waves come in, the larger ship will be tossed about unless it too is anchored into the ground. The earth exists in a different frame of reference than all water vessels, and is therefore sturdy enough to withstand the tides. The same, explains Rav Tatz, is true of our relationship with Hashem. We don’t want to anchor ourselves to other people, no matter how great they are; because, in the end, all people are subject to human frailties. We must anchor ourselves to G-d. He exists in a different realm. He is not subject to the tide, and all those that anchor to Him will be protected by His sturdiness and steadfastness.