Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Who Drinks the Water?

It’s a classic ethical dilemma: Two people are lost in the desert with only one water bottle. There is not enough water for both people to reach civilization. Who gets the water, or do they share it (and both die)?

Let’s be honest, most people run through all the answers in their head. The natural instinct of “Hey, it’s my water” is beaten down by every lesson on sharing and sacrificing for others. But the altruistic response of giving all of the water to the other person goes against basic survival instinct. Sharing the water seems to leave open the possibility that the two people might find more water or come across someone who will rescue them and transport them to civilization.

The sages (Talmud Baba Metzia 62a) were divided regarding the correct response. Ben Petura believed that the correct solution was to share the water. His reasoning, however, was that sharing the water and both dying was better than either of them living and watching the other die. After all, doesn’t it say in Talmud Sanhedrin 74a: “Who says your blood is redder? Maybe your friend’s blood is redder?” Meaning, how can an ordinary human being choose who lives and who dies?
On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva, whose opinion is the accepted one, declared that the owner of the water is the one who should drink the water. As proof, he cited Leviticus 25:36, which states: “That your brother may live with you.” While this verse is actually part of a discussion on usury, Rabbi Akiva cited it to answer our question. He noted that the Torah said “with you,” to teach us that while in most instances you must help your brother. This is not so if it comes at the expense of your life! Therefore, the owner of the water gets to keep it.

This Treat was last posted on May 6, 2010.

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