Judaism is not a religion that focuses on what we believe or feel, but on what we do. That makes sense; after all, you can’t force yourself to believe something nor can you prevent inappropriate or even evil thoughts and fantasies from popping into your head. But you can control what you do. Once an idea occurs to you — whether it’s adding a few hundred dollars to your expense report or what you’d like to do with your attractive next-door neighbor — you decide whether to act on or ignore your fantasy.
It is fundamental to Judaism that people must be held accountable for their behavior. Therefore, Judaism finds its truest expression in Halacha, the Jewish law that tells us everything from how to dress to how to treat employees; from what to eat to what we owe the poor; how to celebrate and how to mourn; how to mark the days of the week, the seasons of the year, and the transitions of our lives. The word “halacha” is from “halach,” “to walk,” for the Jewish legal system is the path, the way, that we are to follow.
We find this verse in Aharei Mot: “You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord” (or in older translations, “which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am the Lord”). At first blush it seems to simply summarize what is written above — God says, these are the rules by which you shall live. But nothing in the Torah is ever that simple.
Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud see in the words v’chai bahem, live by them, permission to ignore the letter of the law in order to preserve its essence.
According to the Book of Maccabees, many of the Jews rebelling against the Syrian Greeks refused to violate Shabbat by fighting on that day. Of course, once the Greeks figured that out, they quickly took advantage of their opponents’ Shabbat observance and attacked on that day, wiping out their enemies. Mattathias, the leader of the Jewish revolt against Antiochus, rejected this reasoning that led to death, believing that it was better to violate one or two Shabbats by fighting back than to give up Shabbat forever by being destroyed.
And so we have the principle of pikuach nefesh doheh Shabbat — saving a life takes precedence over Shabbat. The Talmud in Yoma states: How do we know that saving a life takes precedence over Shabbat? Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel, for it is written, “he shall live by them” and not “he shall die by them.”
This principle states that all but three of the 613 commandments may be violated to save a human life. (The three are the prohibitions of murder, idolatry, and sexual impropriety, teaching us that life is of great value, but that we may not cling to life at any cost.)
If the doctor believes that it would be dangerous for a person who is ill to fast, that person is not only permitted, but required, to eat on Yom Kippur. If someone has a heart attack or a serious accident on Shabbat, it goes without saying that others may use a telephone to call an ambulance or drive to take that person to the hospital. In fact, Rambam argued that even when the life-saving activity could be done by a non-Jew so that no Jew would have to violate the laws of Shabbat, it is preferable that a Jew do it to make the point clear — the purpose of the laws of the Torah is to promote compassion, loving-kindness, life, and peace.
“Live by them” — these words remind us that without maintaining life, no other mitzvot and no other holiness is possible. The Torah and its mitzvot are life-enhancing. At the conclusion of the Torah service we sing, Etz chaim he lamachzikim ba, it is a tree of life to those who grasp it. This doesn’t mean that Torah and mitzvot will necessarily make your life longer, but they will surely make your life richer and more meaningful, so “live by them!”