The Mishnah in Terumot (-12) brings two cases which are similar in their logic, and yet have slightly different outcomes. The Mishnah (11) deals with a case of a non-Jew who threatens to make an entire pile of trumah bread tameh if he is not given one loaf to make tameh. A dispute arises between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer whether one should allow all the loaves to become tameh, or leave one aside for him to make tameh.
The next Mishnah states “and so too with women, [in a case where] non-Jews say: give us one of you to defile and if not we will defile all of you, they should all become defiled rather than give them one soul from Yisrael.”
The Yerushalmi, as well as the Rambam raise a third case where non-Jews surround a city and demand one person’s life otherwise all the people in the city will be killed. In such a case one may not give over anyone in the city. The situation is qualified to state that if they are requesting someone who is liable for death, he may be handed over (although this is not the ruling with regards to the women).
Tosfot Yom Tov here points us to a Mishnah in Ohalot (perek 7) where the life of the mother is not saved if the baby has already exited the womb, since we “do not push off one soul for another soul”. Each soul of every Jew is significant and there is no way of objectively choosing between them.
Taking these points we have to understand the common thread between the three cases that causes us to lump these decisions into one group. Once something becomes trumah (and even more so when the object is a human being) it ceases to be normal and raises itself to become a significant object in its own right and different from all ordinary things. The fact that it becomes important in its own right means that it is not possible to pick between each one since each one is important. This holds true for human beings as well as objects that have been sanctified to Hashem.
This, however still does not explain the differences between the rulings, although with some simple logical deduction used by the Kesef Mishnah it becomes clear. Once trumah becomes tameh it can never return to its tahor status and therefore, according to Rabbi Yehoshua, can only be placed before the non-Jew but not given directly to him. We cannot select a particular women since despite that fact if she were defiled she can still continue to live a virtuous life, we have no right to decide which one is the ‘most worthy’ of being sent out to the non-Jews (under normal circumstances, see the Kesef Mishnah for exceptions). Finally, when dealing with matters of life and death, the decision is final and consequently comparable to the case of trumah. Yet, we are also dealing with humans, and therefore some of the stringencies of the second case must be adopted. Nevertheless, extending the principles set out in the second case one can understand why the Rambam ruled that one can hand over a person that is sentenced to death.
The significance that exists in every one of us and in every object, whether it be land or a holy object, is one that sets us apart for a special goal. While we may not know what direction this will take us we must continue in the path that makes us unique, as is written in parashat Kedoshim Tehiyu – “You shall be holy for I, God am holy”.
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