My BIL posted an article from the Jewish Post describing the relief efforts of Israeli doctors and other personnel in Haiti. The article mentions that, “Among the staff are Orthodox Jews who went to Haiti even though it was Shabbat. Reiss said they avoided performing unnecessarily tasks like shaving, but did everything needed to save lives.”
This makes for wonderful public relations, but I have no doubt that these individuals did not go to Haiti with the intent of scoring a public relations coup – they went because a Jew cannot help but react with compassion when he/she sees a fellow human being in distress. It is our instinctive nature to be rachmanim and gomlei chassadim, to act selflessly to help others.
This response resonates with our emotional and moral sensibilities, and yet I wonder if it is the correct response. Once a situation of ones has arisen all issurim are suspended. However, the Ba’al haMaor writes that a person cannot place him/herself in a situation of inevitable ones by choice. A person may not embark on a ship immediately before Shabbos because he/she will have to violate Shabbos if anything goes wrong onboard –once the ones is there one can do what is necessary to save the ship, Shabbos notwithstanding, but one may not intentionally enter into that situation by choosing to embark before Shabbos instead of at some other time.
Given the choice of volunteering to be among the first rescuers and doing melacha d’oraysa (which it would be very hard to avoid given the situation) for the sake of an aku”m (which there does not seem to be any clear cut heter for) on Shabbos or keeping Shabbos and waiting until the next day to mobilize the relief efforts, is the choice to render aid even on Shabbos so clear cut? Again, instinctively one feels that expedience is paramount when it comes to questions of human life, and I don’t think this instinctive reaction is due to a lack of appreciation of Shabbos on our part. Perhaps it is even correct to follow that instinctive reaction to save life and worry about sorting out technical legal details later. Perhaps it is not proper to raise even after the fact the sort of question I am posing when human life hangs in the balance. Is it? If it is, if we should concern ourself with the technical halachic issue either before or after the fact, how do we halachically justify the response? And finally, if in hindsight we conclude that technically one should not volunteer in cases like this, how do we square that with our moral instinct?
It goes without saying that this theoretical discussion is only with respect to the question of Shabbos, but certainly our compassion extends to those in Haiti desperately in need of the bracha of tov Hashem la'kol v'rachamav al kol ma'asav.