We are thankful to Rabbi Rick Kellner, Congregation Beth Tikvah, for allowing us to share his sermon on organ donation from the spring of 2018. 

There is a story told of a Holocaust survivor who had a son.  The son became very ill and was in dire need of a kidney transplant.  He had been on the waiting list for many years but things were getting worse.  One day the father received a phone call.  The father was told that a perfect donor match had been found and his son could have his new kidney in a matter of days.  The man and his son traveled from Israel to Toronto where the donor resided.  Upon arriving in Toronto, the father and son received word that the perfect match would no longer donate his kidney, the boy’s father had put a stop to it.  Distraught, the father of the boy who needed the kidney begged and pleaded the doctors for an answer.  All he would learn is that it would no longer happen.  He then insisted on speaking to the father of the boy who was the perfect match.  He got his address and knocked on the door.  When the man opened the door the father of the boy who needed the kidney said to him, “Why won’t you allow your son to donate?  It is a perfect match, he is in good health, the doctors have assured you that he will be fine.”  The man said, “Don’t you recognize me?  Don’t you know who I am?”  The man was puzzled.  “Don’t you remember me from Auschwitz?”  The man continued to look puzzled.  “You see, they made you take my son, they made you take him in order to spare your own life, they told you to murder him.  I swore, I would remember your name and your face and never forgive you.”  The man looked at him now and remembered.  A tear fell on his cheek and he said, “I remember that day, I took your son, but I did not kill him, I hid him and after the war, I could not find you so I raised him as my son.  The boy who needs a kidney is your son, and your son is his brother, that is why he is a perfect match.”

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, told this story as part of his ELI talk, a Jewish version of TED talks focusing on organ donation.[1]  The power of this story lies within the human capacity to save a life.  Imagine for a moment the emotions of each character in this story.  The father of the adopted son wants to save this boy’s life, he has raised him as his own son, loved him cared for him, given him everything.  He feels pain for the boy that could have been killed at Auschwitz, who is suffering and wants to live his life to the fullest.  There is the father, of the donor, who holds an unforgiveable grudge on his heart because of the pain he felt earlier in life.  The boy who agrees to donate might feel great anxiety over the pending surgery.  He has his emotions pulled from under his feet as his father now prevents him from having the surgery.  It is difficult to imagine what was going through his mind as he chose to become a live donor.  Lastly the boy who is ill takes an emotional roller coaster ride as he nears death from kidney failure, he finds out he out he will live only to have the rug pulled out from under his feet, only to have hope restored with the potential of meeting his birth family.  We think of the complexity of the emotions felt by all these individuals and we place ourselves in any of these individual’s shoes and contemplate how we might respond.

Last year more than 33,000 Americans received a life-saving organ transplant and more than 1.75 million Americans received a tissue transplant.  When one individual donates, that individual can change the lives of more than 50 others.  In the United States, the idea of organ donation is met with great approval.  90% of Americans support organ and tissue donation, however, only 59% of Ohioans are registered donors and only 34% of West Virginians are registered.   The wait list for organ donation is rising at an alarming rate.  Nationally, more than 116,000 individuals are on the wait list and in Ohio there are 2900 people awaiting an organ transplant.  People are dying waiting for an organ.  It happens every day.[2]

As we think about organ donation and where we stand, we have to recognize that Jews are takers more than givers.  Many have written about the hesitancy of Jews to put their names on donor lists.  There are a number of reasons for this, one is the notion that the body, according to Jewish tradition should go from dust to dust.  Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Rector of the American Jewish University and one of the leading thinkers in the field of Jewish ethics, teaches that two common misconceptions impede donation[3].  First is the fear that the donor’s body will be mutilated as a result of the organ extraction.  The process for organ donation after death includes a sewing together of the incision, followed by preparation for burial.  This combined with a traditional closed casket burial preserves the dignity of the donor by not revealing the wounds.   Rabbi Dorff explains that the second misconception is that the family will have to pay for the procedure and that this is never the case.  Other factors preventing one from registering as an organ donor are psychological.  We find it difficult to contemplate death, just like everyone else, this results in some Jews failing to register as donors.  Others fear that if they choose to become an organ donor, physicians will not fight for them to live as hard.  To avoid such danger protocols for organ donation stipulate that the physicians who deal with the donation are different from those who care for the donor patient.

We must ask ourselves if there are prevailing Jewish principles that we can apply to our decision making.  One answer can be found in our Torah portion.  This week we read a double portion called Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.  The portion Kedoshim focuses on the holiness code and contains a series of oughts one can do to be holy.  Our Torah portion reads Lo taamod al dam reiecha, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16).  This verse can be read in a variety of ways.  Literally, we are not to stand by and do nothing while our neighbor bleeds.  Metaphorically, this commandment tells us not to stand by and do nothing when a neighbor, a friend or another human being lies with his or life in grave danger.  We cannot stand by, watch and do nothing as another suffers.  While organ donation, was not exactly on the radar screen of our ancient ancestors, the advents of technology have brought us the possibility of saving lives in news ways.  Since there is no code of Jewish law pertaining to this area of ethics or Jewish law, we apply principles from elsewhere in the Torah.  In this case, Leviticus reminds us we cannot stand idly by and do nothing.  Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz teaches in his ELI talk, that doing nothing when given the opportunity to donate is akin to standing idly by and doing nothing.  He even goes further and cites those who claim that doing nothing is akin to murder.

Rashi teaches us a great lesson about what this verse is intended to mean.  He explains citing midrash and Talmud this verse refers to one who witnesses a death but could have saved the individual.  The Talmud provides a scenario in which you see another person drowning or being dragged away by a wild animal or being attacked by bandits.  The rabbis wonder if the witness is obligated to save him.  They quote our verse, you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor and say yes, you are obligated to save that person’s life.  We as Jews cannot stand by and watch that person die.

A second principle that applies here is called pikuach nefesh.  They idea that saving a life supersedes all other commandments.  The Talmud in tractate Yoma (84b) reflects on the sanctity of Shabbat.  Observing Shabbat is one of the highest commandments as it is also a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  However, the rabbis wonder about different scenarios in which you have to violate the Sabbath in order to ease pain or save a life.  In every situation, the rabbis conclude that saving a life takes precedent over Shabbat.  Therefore, we can conclude that this notion of pikuah nefesh also supersedes any commandment if it means we can save a life.

The other half of our Torah portion Achare Mot, after the death, focuses on Aaron’s rituals after the deaths of his two sons.  Yet one cannot help but wonder, especially in this context, what might happen after our own deaths.  Part of our own reflection might include a reframing of our conceptions about our bodies.  If we cleave to the Jewish belief that our bodies do not belong to us and when we die, our bodies die but our souls endure, then we might view organ donation is a pathway to enabling the soul to endure.  Rabbi Elliot Dorff teaches that organ donation is an act of chesed, an act of love[4].  Such an act of love helps to bring life to another person who might be suffering.  To know that one’s organ is helping the life of another is a truly powerful hope that we as individuals have the power to make happen. Perhaps another way to think about Achare Mot is to recognize that in most years the portion is combined with Kedoshim, therefore it is called Achare Mot-Kedoshim, meaning after death there is holiness.  Organ donation is a way to make it so.

Our member Ronni Richards, approached me about possibly having a Shabbat dedicated to organ donation so we can raise awareness.  Ronni shared with me her story about her first husband who passed away at the Cleveland Clinic awaiting a heart donation.  From that point onward, Ronni agreed to spread awareness about this sacred act of love, kindness and honor.  As we think about our own lives and the story we write about our legacies, we must consider signing up as organ donors.  Giving the gift of life is a great mitzvah, May we all have the wisdom to reflect upon the idea that after our deaths, there can be holiness and the strength to be able to say l’chayim, donate life. Kein yehi ratzon.


[1] Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, ELI Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vdfd8uc7J4Q

[2] Statistics from Lifeline for Ohio, Clergy handbook/resource book

[3] Matters of Life and Death, Elliot Dorff, p. 231

[4] Dorff, p. 225