Language and Morality – “You shall choose life”

Tsahi Rosenbluth,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Tsahi Rosenbluth

Sometimes, the letters and words of a book remain there and are forgotten. This week I was reminded of how letters and sentences can reach out of a book and touch me, even if I learned them many years ago. I once considered the following tractate to be completely theoretical, and this week I was reminded of its important ethical value and contemporary significance:

“Two are travelling on a journey, and one has a pitcher of water. If both drink – they will die, but if only one drinks – he can reach civilization. Ben Petura taught: It is better that both should drink and die, rather than that one should behold his companion’s death. Until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: ‘that thy brother may live with thee’ – Thy life takes precedence over his life.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia, Page 62a).

The ethical value is derived from the verse “You shall choose life” (Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, Verse 19).

Commentary: The Talmud cites two opinions on this dilemma. Two possible solutions, each of which represents a different worldview. Ben Petura says that “both should drink and die”, and Rabbi Akiva says that only he who owns the water should drink and live, while his friend dies. Rabbi Akiva argues that a person is obliged to preserve their own life first and only afterwards the life of another person. This is a fundamental argument, a rational (logical) principle based on the value of life and on justice: The owner of the water has the right to save himself using his own resource, and thus his life will be saved. In contrast, Ben Petura emphasizes the implications for one’s life, which are not measured in quantity but in quality. Therefore, even though it is logically and objectively preferable that one of the people will survive, a person is driven by subjective judgments and will be unable to drink the water himself and watch his friend die. Rabbi Akiva determined that life is valuable: You were given a life and you must preserve it, even at the expense of another person's life.

This week I received a real-life reminder of this tractate and its practical application.

Hundreds attended the funeral of the navigator Tamar Ariel, who was killed in an avalanche in Nepal. The incident occurred in the Annapurna Range in Nepal, near the Thorong La Pass, on October 14, 2014. The landslide killed 43 tourists, including four Israelis, and many suffered from frostbite. Among those attending the funeral were the friends who were with Tamar in her final moments, and they said that at one point she apparently suffered from hypothermia and began to lose consciousness and sink down onto the snow. When one of the avalanche survivors, Eitan, visited the home of Tamar’s parents in Masuot Yitzchak, Tamar’s parents came up to him and embraced him for a long time. Tamar's father, Hanan, spoke on behalf of the family. He said that the Israeliness of fellowship was revealled, and it was revealled how they took care of each other despite the dire situation. He said that when the friends who were with Tamar realized that Tamar was dead, they had to make a decision. Their decision to continue on without her was correct and reasonable, and there are no words to describe how difficult such a decision is.

If, like me, you are moved by the friends’ ability to help in any situation and by their ability to continue their journey under difficult conditions; if you are moved by the ability of Tamar's parents to forgive and to speak the same language as the survivors and emotionally support them; then you, the reader, and I understand that there is something extraordinary about this that does not simply appear out of thin air. I would like to take a closer look and gain insight into the power of words, the power of text, the power of teaching, the strength of a nation, and the building of a nation. I’ll therefore return to the beginning of this article. The text “Two are travelling on a journey” became a code of ethics that was agreed upon by all participants in the event, a touchstone for the parents and for the supportive society. There is no doubt that this same issue that was decided 2,000 years ago echoed though the minds of each and every person who has ever come across the tractate, as attested to by the many posts on the subject. When I saw the text “Two are travelling on a journey” in a post my friend sent, all the memory bulbs in my mind lit up. Coincidentally or not, I was preparing a lesson on the journalist and man of culture Adam Baruch, at exactly that moment. I had his book open in front of me: “In Good Faith”, 2000

The past and present combined to create a clear worldview. Baruch based his teachings on the importance of text for Jews. He wrote “The written text is Judaism’s legal tender. The oral (as a legally binding language) is suspended until it has been written. The elite’s language perception is hermetic” (page 78).

So, in light of what has been said above, the power of the written text is above and beyond that of the spoken and unwritten word. The Hebrew language uses few words and melodies. The goal is to strive for language that is almost legal, to aspire to linguistic accuracy, to imbue each word with value, and to think about each word that is spoken. There are many examples of the desire to control the spoken word.

As a teacher who teaches Hebrew and supports and encourages the creation of a solid foundation in the Hebrew language, as the owner of an online Hebrew school, and as a writer of books, I have a desire that has accompanied me from the moment I realized that my purpose in life is to teach Hebrew. There is no higher goal in my mind than to teach my students Hebrew until they can approach texts that are written in Jewish or Israeli Hebrew. To teach, while debating with the learner, texts that hold a message for future generations; to create knowledge that will connect my students to the chain of generations; to connect us all to the same expressions, codes of behavior, codex of thoughts, and musings.

In conclusion, regarding the language of morality and exclusion from general discourse, here are the words of Adam Baruch (on the same page as the previous quote): “And by the way, moving up in the social hierarchy requires a complete change in the type of language, and an ignorant person, if he does not elevate himself spiritually, will be unable to achieve this complete change of language. Judaism will identify him immediately and return him to the status of an ignorant person.”

I believe it is important that someone speaking Hebrew today feel the special tension that exists between Israeli Hebrew and Jewish Hebrew, and that he be able to walk the thin line between them. The Hebrew speaker will feel at home with all the layers of the Hebrew language, and he will experience Hebrew as a complete and unified language, so that no linguistic combination is foreign to him.

Today’s Hebrew speaker knows that even if he wants to modernize the language, his changes will be but one more layer upon the layers of preceding generations.

Written by Ayala-Lilli Moses, CEO of Go Get & Tell Education LTD. An Israeli company that provides diverse study solutions to Hebrew language students.