Pikuach nefesh (pee-KOO-ahch NEH-fesh) is a Jew’s obligation to save a life in jeopardy. This commandment is taken so seriously in the tradition that it overrides many other considerations. To preserve a life, it is permissible to remove organs from a dead body (otherwise, Jews are forbidden to disturb a body except to wash it, clothe it decently, and bury it.) To preserve a life, one may travel or otherwise violate the Sabbath.
The obligation is based in the Torah: “Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This mitzvah was honed and expanded through many discussions in the Talmud, and it is carefully spelled out in the codes of halakhah (Jewish law.)
Often when we speak of it, we think of desperate heroic situations: the weeping widow signs off on organ donation after her husband’s death, a sick child is rushed to a hospital on Shabbat, or a teen uses CPR skills to keep someone alive until the EMT’s arrive.
Today I was reminded that it also applies to a situation so mundane we rarely pause to notice it. A friend posted to his facebook timeline:
“Most people don’t get into their cars thinking, ‘I hope nobody hits and kills me today.’ I cannot get on my bike without having that thought.”
It’s not an unreasonable fear. I heard it from my son, too, back when he was commuting on a motorcycle. And what city dweller has not had a close call as a pedestrian? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians are what traffic experts call “vulnerable road users” (VRU’s) and recently they have accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities a year on US roads. The average new car weighed 4,000 lbs in 2010. When two tons of steel encounter a fragile human body, there’s no question who is going to get hurt.
Then, of course, there are the other people in cars: despite the tons of steel surrounding passengers, riding in a car is pretty dangerous too. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2010. Using the other figure for VRU’s, that leaves 22,999 people in cars who were killed in 2010.
Automobile safety is a pikuach nefesh issue. When we sit behind the wheel of a car, we take lives into our hands. Every glance away from the road is a few seconds in which something terrible can happen. Each item of distraction is a potential desecration of life. I’m not talking about drunk driving, or texting, or other flagrant violations of law. I’m talking about the things we all do that seem “normal” at the time: fiddling with the radio, letting ourselves get impatient with an irritating driver, paying too much attention to anything besides the road ahead of and around us. At any moment of distraction, someone could die. It’s as simple as that.
I wrote about this once before, back in August of 2012, after I had an accident. When I wrote The Freeway Blessing, I was shaken by the fact that I came too close to being a statistic. When it happened I was being very careful: the radio was off and I was wary because the traffic was both heavy and moving rapidly on I-880. Even with all my faculties engaged, I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid a serious accident.
Today, after the reminder from my friend, I’m renewing my commitment to taking driving as seriously as it deserves. Here’s what I am going to do:
- I commit to giving my full attention to the process of driving.
- I commit to allowing time for careful driving: leaving a bit earlier than absolutely necessary, so that I won’t feel an urge to hurry.
- I commit to getting that eye exam that I think probably isn’t necessary, but it’s time, so I’ll get it.
- Finally, I commit to reminding myself that driving is a sacred activity, because I hold lives in my hands when I do it. I’ll do that by saying a blessing before I drive:
Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, hanoteyn l’chol cha-im.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.
I invite you to join me in making a new commitment to pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.
Image by Elvert Barnes, some rights reserved.