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Thought for the Day: Transgressing a Small Sin to Save My Fellow Jew from a Large Sin

I have three children, I was/am a very involved father.  I have survived three teenagers; a fact that I use to explain to coworkers why I am so calm at work.  After all, no matter what happens, no matter how unreasonable people are, it just can't compare to what can happen and how unreasonable a teenager can be.  I therefore had not the smallest reservation about babysitting four of my grandchildren for one Sunday afternoon.  Over the four hours and 47 minutes that I was the lone adult, though, I learned a new level of chaos management.  True enough that I have seen plenty of chaos and unreasonableness with my own children, but I never before experienced the quantity of chaos and unreasonableness than can be generated by four children from one year to six years old.  I gained new respect for my daughters and a new appreciation for how fragile my veneer of calm really is.

There is a mitzvah to love every Jew.  If you really love someone, of course, you need to help them avoid hurting themselves, and even if you can't prevent all damage, you would at least do whatever you could to minimize it.  Yet, Chazal tell us that one is not permitted to transgress even a small sin to save another Jew from a much larger transgression.  Even so, there are many, many example all over the Talmud of examples that apparently contradict that rule.  As usual, those examples are not in one place under the heading, "Exceptions to the rule of not transgressing even a small sin to save another Jew from a much larger transgression."  Nor, in fact, are they even in called out in any context that would tip you off; that's why we have the Rishonim.  In this case, it is Tosofos who make the cogent list of the categories and their exceptions that the later poskim use.

Tosofos has three avenues that may be attempted to determine when you may or may not be allowed to jaywalk, as it were, in order to save another Jew from being hit by a bike.  First, they say, you are allowed to help your friend out of a mess that you got him into.  In our scenario, that would be calling him over; you expected him to look before crossing the street, but he didn't.  However (and this is the second reason), if he didn't even look before starting his stroll across the street, then he is on his own.  There is third category that is more or less a leniency on the second category that would allow you to help him so long as he didn't brazenly step in front of the bike to make a point.

There are oodles of details.  For example, if he is stepping in front of a bus you would almost always be able to help him.  Even if he did it on purpose, we we assume he didn't really understand how bad the consequences of his action it.  By the way, if you've been paying attention you see that I am comparing sinning to self-inflicting damage.  That is on purpose; a sin is really nothing more -- and nothing less -- than inflicting damage on your soul.

So, forget all the details; let's take a step back and consider what's going on.  If my friend is hurting himself, why do I care if I got him into it or if he did it on purpose?  He's hurting himself; why can't I help him?  Of course one answer is the life guard rule: If I am not a very strong swimmer, than trying to save someone who is drowning could very well make the situation worse and we have two people drowning instead of one.  We are all children of HaShem and each is precious to Him.

But I think there is more.  Remember my afternoon alone with my grandchildren?  (I do... boy do I!)  There are rules in place.  Some are to protect my property.  (Don't throw your baseball in the kitchen.  Don't draw on the walls.)  Most, though, are for their own protection.  (Don't go outside without an adult.  Don't get into the chemicals under the kitchen sink.  And so on and so on.)  So here's the thing.  If the two year old runs out the front door, I really, really, really, do not want the five year old running out to retrieve her.  If the baby grabs a crayon and draws on the wall, I really, really, really, do not want the six year old grabbing a bottle of cleanser and trying to clean up the wall.  Two kids outside alone is unimaginably worse than just one.  A child suffering from ingesting ammonia is unimaginably worse than dealing with marker on the wall.

Maybe you'll tell me, "Well, of course in those cases it's worse; but you are choosing extreme examples on purpose.  I'd be careful not to make things worse."  I have a two part answer to that claim.  First, try asking the five year old if drawing on the wall or drinking cleanser is worse.  They could very well answer, "Well, Zeidy yells a lot when we draw on the wall, but just talks to us seriously when we get close to the cleanser."  How about running outside?  "Well, Zeidy yells at me for not watching my sister better, but just hugs us when he runs out and finds us."  Their assessment of the damage/danger has very little to do with the actual risk and danger.  Part two of my answer is that the gap in understanding between you and your grandchildren is nothing compared to the gap in understanding between you and HaShem.  If they can make a mistake, I can (and do) make much bigger mistakes.

One more thing.  That afternoon alone with my grandchildren... I wouldn't give it up for the world and I look forward to more opportunities.  Really.

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