I do not know many people who will do something to benefit someone else if it means that they will suffer a negative consequence. I have read of such actions taking place in the cauldron of the Holocaust narrative or in a prison setting, but it is a rare occurrence in times of peace and prosperity. Yet that is exactly what is depicted in Two Days, One Night, a slice-of-life drama in which Sandra, a factory worker, goes around visiting her fellow employees asking them to forego their annual bonuses so that she can retain her job.
The setting is an industrial town in Belgium. Sandra, a young wife and mother, has been on leave of absence from work because of emotional problems and is now ready to reclaim her old job. In the interim, however, management concludes that they no longer need Sandra’s services if her colleagues work slightly longer hours. Her bosses offer each member of the staff a substantial bonus if they agree to make Sandra redundant. Becoming aware of this proposal on Friday, Sandra visits as many of her co-workers as possible over the weekend to ask them to forego their bonuses so that she can retain her job. The crucial vote will take place on Monday morning, and the outcome is unclear until the last moment.
The problem for Sandra is that most of the colleagues need the bonus money for their own families. We watch as Sandra makes her plea to her co-workers. Some are ready to pass on their bonus to help a friend in need; others put the needs of their own family first and reject her overture.
The essential existential question posed by Sandra’s dilemma is the following: how much is a person required to sacrifice in order to help another if helping the other person hurts you in some way. Jewish law provides some guidelines to approach this problem. The Codes suggest that a person should give charity according to his means, but not more than a fifth of one’s earnings, lest the giver himself fall into poverty.
Moreover, there is a discussion in the responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of great Jewish legal minds of the twentieth century, concerning donating bone marrow for someone who needs it. He observes that although one is not obligated to give it, he is allowed to do it if he chooses. This may be analogous to Sandra’s precarious financial situation. She desperately needs a job to take care of her family, and it is a good deed to help her, especially if one can manage with less money and still provide for one’s family. But if one thinks that his own family will suffer if one gives his money to a friend, then one is not required to donate.
Jewish jurisprudence recommends a balanced approach: to consider both the welfare of a friend and your own welfare. There are no clear-cut answers to such a dilemma, and everyone has to evaluate his own situation carefully, recognizing that one’s own welfare generally takes precedence.
The final scene in which the factory workers take the crucial vote is nuanced, recognizing the moral ambiguity of the situation and the consequences for everyone. Two Days, One Night does not take the simplistic way out; rather it leaves us with complexity and the suggestion that the very process of dealing with adversity has intrinsic value for the one who is undergoing it. Even when life challenges leave us with uncertain results, the journey towards resolution of conflicts often makes us emotionally stronger.