Pikkuah Nefesh in the Wilderness – Saving a Life

By Deborah Newbrun, Bay Area Director

In the summer of 1983, in the Siskiyou National Forest in Northern California, I was leading 15 teenagers on a three day backpacking trip as part of a teen travel program out of Camp Tawonga. After a 5 mile climb we arrived at our mountain lake destination and were delighted to find snow around much of the lake. Tired and hungry, my co leader and I guided the teens to set up camp, eat some snacks and put on jackets. A cold afternoon was promising a very cold night. One girl, thin and lovely, wandered away from camp and went to sit on the snow. I noticed that she didn’t have a jacket on and was aware that in general she hadn’t been eating much on our trip. I didn’t know how long she had been up on the snow drift and walked over to get her to come back and put her jacket on. She was incoherent, slurring her words and not interested in putting on her jacket.

“My God,” I thought, “This is hypothermia, this is what I learned it could look like.”

She didn’t feel cold, she didn’t feel hungry, she probably hadn’t eaten and it was on me to save her.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes: “The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. When life is involved, all Sabbath laws may be suspended to safeguard the health of the individual, the principle being pikkuah nefesh doheh Shabbat–[rescuing a] life in danger takes precedence over the Sabbath… This duty to ignore the law, if necessary, to safeguard health is also stressed in connection with fasting on Yom Kippur. A sick person is obliged to break the fast. Neither the patient nor those attending him need atone when performing such acts that are forbidden under normal circumstances.”

We are charged with teaching our children how to swim. Bay Area Hazon, thinks we should be teaching them how to save lives as well! I wouldn’t have known how to treat hypothermia miles from emergency medical services if I hand not taken wilderness medical training courses. Please consider joining us May 31st and June 1st to get certified in Wilderness First Aid.

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Deborah Newbrun is Hazon’s Bay Area Director. Having grown up hiking and backpacking in San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay Hills and Yosemite, Deborah started her career as a National Park Service Ranger and Naturalist for several Bay Area Environmental Education organizations. She brought her naturalist and Jewish life together when she spent 25 years running Camp Tawonga, where she helped to build a residential camp with a national reputation for its environmental ethic, its Jewish leadership and staff training, and its cutting-edge camp and family programs.

Photo courtesy of Foster Calm


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