Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l divided his Chumash translation, “The Living Torah,” by topics, in addition to the standard divisions by chapter and parsha. For verses 25:35-38, in this week’s parshat Behar-Bechukoti, he entitled the section “Helping others.” In the context of helping the poor, the phrase v’chai imakh appears, as does v’chay achikha imakh. He translates the former phrase “Help him survive,” and the latter as “and let your brother live alongside you.”
Interpretations for these phrases often focus on civil harmony and congeniality, and perhaps learning how to treat a spouse, or simply how to be a mentsch towards others in the game of life.
I have a different interpretation based this story that I heard from the person who experienced it:
“Last Sunday I was at a fishing pier with my wife, along the boardwalk. I was feeling nauseous, but it was also hot, so I figured I’d go get a drink of water. I gave my wife my fishing rod and went to get a drink, and I stopped on a bench just to collect myself.
“A stranger who was jogging came over to me and said, ‘You look terrible. I think you need to call an ambulance.’ I thought the guy was crazy. I said to him, ‘I’m feeling a little queasy, but I definitely don’t need an ambulance.’
“He said to me, ‘Look man. I’m an EMT and you have a cardiac condition. You’re sweating in a way that isn’t normal, and you need an ambulance to take you to the emergency room.’
“I argued with him for a couple of minutes until I let him convince me. I called the ambulance saying, ‘I’m on the boardwalk. This guy stopped to tell me I should call an ambulance. I feel fine. But he’s an EMT. Can you please pick me up?’
“They got there within a couple of minutes. My wife and I went to the ER together. I was totally fine filling out the papers. Then I said something to the nurse as she left the room. And that was the last thing I remember until Tuesday morning.
“I got the feeling that there were many people around me, but I flat-lined. I was on a ventilator for 24 hours. I woke up on Tuesday, and was in the hospital for three more days — came home on Friday, in time for Shabbos.”
And now he’s walking around telling the tale, at all of 35-years-old. Turns out he had a clogged artery, a condition doctors sometimes call “the widow maker.” Had he not been in the ER when he went into cardiac arrest he would be dead now.
I asked him, “So what does Eliyahu Hanavi look like?”
“He’s a good-looking black man who jogs on a boardwalk,” he answered.
This man, the jogger, lives the phrase “Vchai imakh (help him survive).” The jogger could have minded his own business, but he saw something, recognized something, and in a simple debate that last three minutes, he saved a man’s life. Did he have to? Was anything in it for him? No. The one who lived to tell the tale does not even know the name of his benefactor.
Not all of us are EMTs or medical professionals. We might not be so lucky to be in the life-saving business. But we can also fulfill “v’chai achikah imakh (and let your brother live alongside you).”
It’s not just about “letting” as much as it is about “teaching” or “helping” a person learn “how” to live.
Some people who go through experiences like this turn around and say “I was given a second chance. I am now going to take steps to do the things in my life I was meant to do but pushed off for another day. Life is too short for us to have regrets about the things we never got around to doing.”
With encouragement and the right kinds of inclusiveness, we can help others have experiences they might not otherwise have. Some of them follow the teaching that says we are to enjoy life. Others follow the school of thought that has us dedicating and devoting ourselves to spiritual pursuits.
Whatever paths we take with our newfound second chances, may they be experiences of brotherhood as we truly learn how to live in the company of dear family and friends.
A version of this column was published in 2010.