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Why First Responders Are Jewish Heroes

Those who ran to help in Boston embody the ideal of ‘walking in God’s ways’

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A video grab of spectators help a victim after the explosions at the Boston Marathon yesterday.(Marc Hagopian/AFP/Getty Images)

There is an image from the yesterday’s nightmare in Boston which I cannot get out of my mind, probably because it’s at once both horrific and holy. As first responders ran towards the victims of the bombing, the “cruel irony,” as reporter Charles Pierce put it, was that “the barricades meant to protect the spectators briefly prevented the EMTs from reaching the injured.” I see the footage, and I can almost sense their desperation, knowing that people need help, and that mere seconds can be the difference between life and death. And yet I’m filled with awe. Just who are these people, doing the holiest thing a human being can do: running towards the injured and dead instead of running away from them.

There is something about seeing first responders going about their work that restores our hope in humanity. Just as importantly, there is something about seeing them that can teach us a lesson in theology.

In Jewish theology, the highest human ideal is to “walk in God’s ways.” The Book of Deuteronomy mentions this lofty mandate five times, but curiously, it never spells out what it means. Modern Bible scholars tend to think that “walking in God’s ways” is just another way of talking about obeying God’s commandments, but the Talmudic Sages understood it differently. Their interpretation is something I suspect many first responders understand in an intuitive, almost visceral way—which is why, from a Jewish perspective, they are theological heroes.

What does being godly consist of, according to the rabbis? A well-known Talmudic text puts it this way: “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you; just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you” (Sotah 14a). To walk in God’s ways, in other words, is to act in the ways that the Torah describes God as acting. Just as God is present when people are vulnerable and suffering, so should we be.

Yes, for religious people, study is important, prayer is important, and ritual, too. But what this text, and others like it, suggests is this: If you want to really serve God, and not just go through the motions, then learn to care for people in moments of profound pain. In many ways, it is easier to study, or pray, or build a sukkah—or whatever. In telling us that offering care and comfort to people in pain is the very highest human ideal, Judaism alerts us to the fact that it can be intensely hard work. But it is also the heart of authentic religion and spirituality: To bring a little bit of God’s love and compassion to the widow, the orphan, the Alzheimer’s patient, and the bombing victim.

Notice something about the Talmud’s list. The naked are vulnerable, but their situation is reversible; the sick are vulnerable, but at least sometimes they can heal. Mourners have sustained an immense loss; nothing can bring back their loved ones. And the dead are… dead, and never coming back. Their situation is the very paradigm of irreversibility. Each situation the Talmud invokes is more irreversible than the one before, and hence, I think, also more frightening. Yes, the Talmud appears to be saying, these people’s circumstances are scary. Stay with them instead of fleeing.

Faced with a situation that makes us stare the depth and extent of out vulnerability in the face, most of us want to flee. Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary.

This is what first responders do. Without calling attention to themselves or congratulating themselves, they run towards human suffering instead of running away from it. To walk in God’s ways is to walk in their ways, too—towards people in pain and not away from them.

In the days ahead, let’s appreciate and thank the first responders—yes. But let’s also ask: How can we internalize something of their ethos, and their capacity for courage and compassion and care? We can pay them no greater tribute than that. And we can offer God no greater service either.

Rabbi Shai Held is co-founder, dean and chair in Jewish thought at Mechon Hadar. His book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence is due out from Indiana University Press in the fall.

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Beautifully said.

Boston’s first responders were trained either by Israelis or in Israel.

G-d Bless all responders who reach out to others in their time of need.

G-d Bless all responders who reach out to others in their time of need.

Beautiful. It is also a Zionist virtue. It reminds me of an article written by historian David Vital in TLS about 15-20 years ago. I had a copy on the board in my old office and unfortunately lost it when I changed jobs. Vital relates an incident described in a letter from his mother, in Jerusalem, to his father, organizing in Poland, from the period of the riots of the late 1930s. There was an explosion, and crowds of people rushed towards it. She heard someone say to an elderly man :”Reb Shlomo, why are you running this way, it’s dangerous.” He responded “I know it’s dangerous. I have been running away all my life. I don’t want to run anymore.” The essence of Zionism at its best is taking responsibility for our own lives, and that of our fellows. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for calling this memory back to mind.

You don’t need to write a piece justifying the heroism of first responders – just like you don’t need to justify that the sky is blue. It is patently obvious to anyone who is a human being that they are heroes. Unless, what you are really saying is that Judaism – more so that other (competing) belief systems – emphasizes these values. In which case, you are using this horrific situation to essentially pat yourself on the back and gloat about your beliefs, which I find cynical and distasteful. And also wrong – Jews and non-Jews alike responded to the boston massacre (there are no apparently Jewish people in the picture above) and on 9/11 (many of whom, to boot, gave their lives to save others). I think it’s enough to say that they are heroes and to say no more.

irvingdog says:

One of the best pieces I’ve read on Tablet. Thank you!

Debora Gordon says:

That’s not what he did. He gave their actions the name of a Jewish value, and then challenged other Jews to live up to that value. Not that it’s uniquely Jewish, not at all; any more than “Elohim” is more uniquely God’s name than “Allah.” (Yes, I chose those two because they are etymologically related.) The values are human values; but each tradition passes them on in its own way.

One of the reasons we have traditions is because they help embody stuff that we want each successive generation to learn to do. Like running toward those who need help, instead of running away. This is a beautiful little piece crafted to remind Jews that part of being Jewish is taking responsibility for the vulnerable. Because for some people, that’s how the value will click; making this connection between Deuteronomy and what we saw on Monday could be the “aha!” moment that helps someone Jewish carry out this universal human value.

Getriddathat says:

If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know this and where did you get the information from?

Guest says:

It takes courage to run to help people. The writer was looking at this from a Jewish point of view, being a Rabbi and all. He never said the responders were Jewish. Just that they were heroes. What is your problem?

I only saw this article this morning and think it is a beautiful piece that we can all learn from and treasure. I am not Jewish but will print this and use this article to demonstrate to my grandchildren, the message it contains “Walking in God’s ways”

guest says:

You completely mischaracterized this piece. Also, I completely disagree with the idea that their heroism doesn’t need to “be justified.” IWho knows what rabbi, priest, teacher, humanist, etc. gave a moving exposition like this one on heroism in the past, which may have helped inspire one of these heroes to do what they did. Calm down.

guest says:

Beautiful response, but you are responding to someone who likely did no more than read the title, which I suppose is a bit ambiguous…

guest says:

like the comment below, I am not sure Ms. Amsel read more than the title. Let it be a lesson to Rabbi Held, When he writes a moving piece, he must put more thought into the title, lest people come of with nonsensical interpretations of his position because they are too lazy to actually read the rest.

If I were lazy and only read the title, I too might think he was claiming that the first responders were Jews.

Anthony Rebello says:

Every time I read abusive or vitriolic text on the net it seems to be heralding mindless violence soon to be inflicted on some innocent victim. While firmly opposing the death sentence, I hope that if and when I or one of mine falls victim to a twisted mind, it does not twist mine own mind.

Habbgun says:

I’m sorry sir but we do. It is a Judaic value in that we find action as an essential part of belief in a creator that demands we perform actions that are righteous and just and that we do it out of belief and not desire for attention and it does underscore the dimensions against the war on terror First responders in Boston and especially those in the WTC acted despite dangers to themselves and they did so anonymously. The thought is towards the victims and not themselves.
The terrorist especially the suicide bomber seeks notoriety, fame and the applause of his co-believers. A suicide bomber may be choosing death but he is exalting himself (in an evil way) while he lives.
Life has a religious dimension and we must examine these dimensions to make life meaningful. I’m sorry you see this as a sort of usurpation but it is not. It is appreciation for Jew and non-Jew alike.

Thanks for this insightful article, Shai. In response to this story, I offer my story of that fateful Marathon Monday.

I was enjoying a post-race party with about two dozen people at an office right across from the finish line. At around 4:10 on the marathon clock I saw a flash from the corner of my eye; a blast wave immediately blew me off the couch upon which I was sitting and onto the floor.
I yelled at my brother – who’d finished the race over an hour before – to get all the people away from the windows, in case there was a secondary explosion. As soon as I said that, the second explosion detonated.

Once I saw all the people at the party were secure in the back of the office, I ran down the stairs to the ground floor. I almost slid on the glass shards and blood that was on the ground. I saw a woman with a deep calf wound; I grabbed a t-shirt and tied a tourniquet above the wound. I grabbed a Boston firefighter – Jimmy Plourde – and instructed him to evacuate the woman.

I then heard a woman keening for her son. I grabbed her, told her to stay put, and that I’d find her son. I looked around and saw a boy, dazed, about 20 feet away. I ran over to him, turned him in the direction of the woman, and said, “Hey buddy, is that your mommy?” He nodded affirmatively. I picked him up, ran him over to his mom, and yelled at them to get out of the area.

I then ran up to some Boston PD officers and instructed them to establish a security perimeter, to make sure no one besides authorized people entered the scene. They quickly responded. I moved to a couple more wounded people, loaded non-ambulatory wounded onto wheelchairs and then onto ambulances. Ambulatory wounded I literally pushed out of the area.

After about 12 to 15 minutes, the scene was completely under control. A Boston PD special operations officer asked me who I was, and I said, “I’m just a guy trying to help.” He said if I want to help, I should leave the area.

I went back into the office building, up the stairs, and reunited with my brother who was waiting with the others who hadn’t left the office. I took a photo of the scene before I left out the back, via the fire escape, and joined with the thousands of people fleeing across the Mass Ave bridge.

People call me a hero but I’m not. I guess my U.S. Army training kicked in, along with my desire to do something, anything, to help. I was angry that someone took away from this special day.

To me, my actions reflect the American spirit. I didn’t do this as a person of Jewish faith, although in hindsight I understand that my actions reflect our emphasis on pikuach nefesh and tikkun olam.

Like our brothers and sisters in Israel, I won’t allow terrorism to defeat us. If my actions that day helped reflect that desire, so much the better.

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Why First Responders Are Jewish Heroes

Those who ran to help in Boston embody the ideal of ‘walking in God’s ways’

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