On the first night of Chanukah, a bus traveling on Route 40 near Ben-Gurion Airport rammed through a concrete bus stop, overturning and killing four people. While the driver of the bus maintains he does not remember what happened and stated that he was neither tired nor was he on his cellphone, at the time this article was penned he is being held by police and investigated for negligent homicide.
In just one week, 11 traffic accidents caused 17 fatalities here in the State of Israel. This brings the total traffic fatalities for 2019 to 345, a 19% rise from 2018.
Each year, hundreds of Israelis lose their lives in fatal traffic accidents. Tragically, many of these deaths can be prevented.
Our holy Torah teaches the importance of road safety.
When Yosef sends his brothers back to the Land of Israel he warns them, "Do not become agitated on the way" (Bereishit 45:24). Rashi (ad Loc.), citing Ta'anit 10b and Breishit Rabbah 94:2, explains that while Yosef wanted them to return home quickly, he wanted them to return safely. Yosef warns his brothers: 1. "Do not become involved in a matter of Halacha," i.e. do not become distracted while on the road, even for something important like Torah study. 2. "Do not take long strides," i.e. do not speed. 3. "Enter the city while it is still daylight," i.e. be extra cautious when traveling at night, when visibility is reduced.
Life, and the preservation of life, is a central tenet of Judaism. In fact, the preservation of life takes precedence over all the Mitzvot of the Torah, except for three. As the Talmud states, “ ‘And you should live by them’ – and not die by them” (Sanhedrin 74a). We are obligated to 'live by the Mitzvot.'
The Torah warns, "But take utmost care, and watch your soul exceedingly" (Devarim 4:9), and "You shall exceedingly guard your souls" (Devarim 4:15). The Talmud (Berachot 32b-33a) relates a story which understands these verses to instruct a person to be careful with guarding his physical safety.
This is something that Rav Ovadiah Yosef took very seriously. In the newly published 7th volume of Yechave Da'at, there is a Kuntres solely devoted to the topic of road safety and etiquette. The Kuntres collects a number of articles and letters from Rav Ovadiah on why one is obligated to drive safely according to the Torah. Rav Ovadiah writes that of all the verses in our Torah, our sages chose verses that use the word "exceedingly," to emphasize just "how important one Jewish life is to Hakadosh Baruch Hu." He cites many examples from the Talmud and Rishonim where we are lenient for Piku'ach Nefesh, saving life, even when in doubt. He writes that preserving life takes precedence over serious Torah prohibitions like Sabbath desecration and eating on Yom Kippur in order to stress the importance of ones health and safety.
Rav Ovadiah cites a Teshuvah of the Rosh (101:5) who rules that one may not race his horse where others are riding or walking, lest he not be able to stop his horse in time and injure someone. Should such an individual cause an injury, he is considered a sinner and is liable as if he himself directly caused bodily harm to another. Rav Ovadiah continues and writes, "Therefore, a driver is obligated to take great caution, beyond just observing the traffic laws."
He also cites a Teshuvah of the Radbaz (Teshuvot HaRadbaz, L'lshonot HaRambam 5:304), where the Radbaz rules that if one runs with a weapon in hand and injures another, he is liable as if it was done intentionally (Meizid). Going into exile in a City of Refuge does not provide atonement in such a case, as the individual was negligent (See also Rambam, Hilchot Rotze'ach 6:4). Rav Ovadiah adds that all the more so must one be careful when driving, following the speed limit and obeying traffic laws, as "a vehicle is the deadliest weapon."
He shares how once he witnessed a driver speeding and asked the driver why he was speeding. The driver responded he was going to Daven, and our sages say 'one who observes a Mitzvah will know no evil.' Rav Ovadiah responded that our sages call such an individual a 'Chassid Shoteh'!
In one letter, Rav Ovadiah cites areas of Halacha where one is required to make safeguards to prevent injury, like making a fence around ones roof or when digging a pit, not raising wild dangerous dogs in his home, or not leaving a shaky ladder around, and calls on drivers to have their cars inspected in advance of Winter to ensure their safety.
In another letter, written during the Ten Days of Repentance, Rav Ovadiah calls on every Jew to make an accounting, do some soul-searching, and repent. In the letter, he specifically singles out drivers and calls on them to make a special accounting as they can, Heaven forbid, endanger their own lives and the lives of others if not careful.
In several of the letters printed in the Kuntres, Rav Ovadiah stresses how precious life is and invokes the Mishnah: "All who destroy one Jewish soul, it as if he destroyed an entire world. And all who saves one Jewish soul, it as if he saved an entire world" (Sanhedrin 4:5).
We live in a world full of distractions, with so many things vying for our attention. But if we take pause and reflect on just how precious life is - and how fragile it is - maybe we will be a little more careful on the roads. The Torah certainly requires us to do so.