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.