The Torah (Vayikra 18:5 with meforshim) teaches us in many places that the most important issue to deal with is pikuach nefesh, danger to life. This is sometimes referred to as sakonas nefashos, but ultimately, they are treated with the same concern, severity and priority.
We, in New York, are experiencing a crisis in this area, especially on the subways. Often, the perpetrator cannot even be prosecuted because he is mentally ill, homeless, and not competent to be tried or punished. But now another problem has surfaced. The Torah (Vayikra 19:16) also teaches, “Lo saamod al dam rei’echa – Do not stand by while your friend’s blood is being spilled.” This Biblical mandate has always been a moral and ethical imperative for all civilized people.
What has changed, tragically, in New York and other cities in the hands of liberal judges and prosecutors is that the tables have been turned upside down. Someone who comes to the aid of others, often at the expense of personal danger, becomes the criminal, and the one causing the original danger becomes the victim. The most egregious case recently has been that of former Marine Daniel Penny who, on May 1st, defended everyone on an F train from the death threats of the homeless and mentally ill Jordan Neely. Many videos have since captured the chaotic scene of Neely screaming that he was going to kill everyone on the train and didn’t care if he was going to die or go to prison. Mr. Penny did what he was trained to do: put Neely into a hold until help could arrive. Neely died in the process.
One might have thought that this is an open and shut case of not only self defense, but of extreme heroism. However, true to form, Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg had him arrested and a Manhattan grand jury voted last Wednesday to indict Penny. He must now appear in front of Judge Maxwell Wiley on June 28th to answer one charge of second-degree manslaughter and another charge of criminally negligent homicide. No one knows how this will turn out, but it is clear that if found guilty, Penny could be spending 19 years behind bars.
Another thing the Torah teaches us is to beware of the ramifications of certain decisions. Numerous surveys and letters to the editor have indicated that an overwhelming majority of people will no longer be willing to step up to rescue a stranger. This now comes at a time when there have been drastic reductions in police, especially on the subways, where one rarely sees an officer. Even worse, a moving subway car is a potential death machine, unless people feel that they will be applauded, not convicted, for saving a fellow human being.
In case we think that this was an isolated incident, on the very same day as the Penny occurrence, another disturbed man, Devictor Ouedrago, menaced several people, punched a woman, and threatened to “erase” someone. When Ouedrago slugged the friend of Jordan Williams, he pulled out a pocket knife to defend her. Ouedrago later died of his injuries, but this time, Judge Sherveal Mimes refused to set a large bail, electing instead to free him on supervised release. It has been alleged that the D.A. was much rougher on Penny, who killed a black man, than on Williams, which was black on black. That has not been proven, but what is manifest is that the miscarriage of justice when people who are protecting themselves and others are punished for their heroism creates a dangerous situation for all on the city streets or subways.
Which brings us to Sedom. The ancient evil city (Bereishis 13:13) was eventually completely destroyed by Hashem for their iniquity. One of their many sins was their equally degenerate justice system. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 104-107) details many of the crimes of Sedom. One of the most famous (Avodah Zarah 19a) involves Eliezer, the servant of Avrohom Avinu. There were four judges in Sedom, each of whose names signified corruption. Sedom was so dangerous that Eliezer was immediately mugged. He took the criminal to court, but the equally tainted judge ordered Eliezer to pay for doing him the favor of bloodletting, which in those days was considered a medical procedure. Eliezer was not deterred and proceeded to strike the judge himself with a rock or stick. When the judge protested, “What was that all about?” Eliezer wisely and bravely responded, “What you owe me, go pay my litigant.”
Rav Shlomo Kanievsky, son of Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Sefer Malchus Shva, Bereishis, page 33), goes beyond the simple meaning of this aggada, asking a powerful question. If Sedom was a city with such contempt for strangers, which it was (see rest of the Gemara in Avodah Zarah), why didn’t they just arrest Eliezer on the spot? Furthermore, the judge accepted Eliezer’s point and agreed to pay the one who had bloodied Eliezer. What exactly was the logic of Sedom’s methods of so-called justice?
Rav Kanievsky answers amazingly that in Sedom, “the law of the jungle prevailed.” Indeed, they only cared about the rich and the powerful in their city. If someone came along and exhibited more strength and courage than them, he would go scot-free. In other words, as Rav Kanievsky concludes, in the jungle, there is no law at all, except that the stronger animal wins. That was the law-non-law of Sedom. Don’t bother going to court, because that indicates your weakness, which means that you will lose. Rav Kanievsky’s final word on this is that “this teaches us how distorted human logic can become. When there are no G-d-given laws, such as our Torah, people can pervert justice to the point that the criminals are victims and the victims go to prison.”
In our time, as many meforshim such as the Maharal teach about the ancient world, the Law of the Jungle has returned. There are really no laws, as “each person – be they judges or district attorneys – do as they please.” Ironically, but not coincidentally, it is the same Alvin Bragg who has mercilessly pursued someone he has always hated, Donald Trump, while ignoring similar or identical actions on the part of Joe Biden. There was no raid on Mr. Biden’s home as there was on Trump’s nor is any indictment planned for the same removal of classified documents. The case can be made – as hopefully it will – that Mr. Biden had no right whatsoever to remove documents, since he was not even president at the time. That remains to be seen, but in New York and elsewhere, above and below ground, the world has become a jungle and the law is, as Milton wrote, red in tooth and claw.
Perhaps if we were to pursue some kind of a remedy for this disaster, we should look to the Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Gemillus Chassodim 5) for the panacea. He writes, “How great is the sin of those who stand by the letter of the law when rendering judgment… When one continues on this path, eventually it leads to actual robbery, as happened in Sedom. They were never willing to compromise (be mevater) and…in the end, they were completely destroyed.” On the one hand, Mr. Bragg has refused to prosecute lifelong criminals and recidivists, while blaming, arresting and attempting to convict the heroes who try to protect innocent people. Olam hafuch – a topsy-turvy world – that we now live in. One consolation is that just as the ancient Sedom was destroyed, this current evil will eventually be overcome as well. However, we have neither Avrohom Avinu, who was willing to intercede for Sedom, as evil as they were, nor Eliezer, who could outsmart them. In our complicated world, we must fend for ourselves and, unfortunately, cannot rely upon those in charge of justice, law and order.
In truth, this, too, is for the best. We must only rely upon Hashem and no other. As society deteriorates and implodes, perhaps all will return to the only One who metes out justice with honesty and truth. May it happen bimeheirah beyomeinu.