“You shall observe My statutes and My laws… and live through them.” (18:5)
Chazal comment on this pasuk: “And live through them — but don’t die through them.”
On the surface, Chazal are teaching us that it’s permissible to violate the Torah’s commandments when one’s life is in danger. But this pasuk may also be conveying the mitzvah of mesirus nefesh — to live al kiddush Hashem in all circumstances. Dying al kiddush Hashem is a tremendous test, but living and withstanding the trials of life also requiresmesirus nefesh. (Rav Elazar Menachem Mann Shach ztz”l, Rosh Amanah)
The Cossacks filled my classroom, sweeping through the aisles between the seats with their terrifying, murderous cries and wild threats. Screams of mothers and infants were heard from every direction. The scent of fear and dread pervaded the atmosphere in the tenth grade as we learned about the pogroms of Tach v’Tat, which devastated the Jewish community of Poland.
We felt the Cossacks presence as they stormed shuls and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity to save their lives. The girls were not taking notes and I wasn’t merely teaching. Instead we were transported to that moment long ago as entire families and communities were threatened with conversion or death.
Who can fathom the pain of a mother whose children are about to be slaughtered before her eyes? A woman whose husband was wallowing in his own blood and whose own death was imminent. Yet these Jews remained strong and defiant; their answer to the Cossacks was unequivocal: “We will not betray Hashem!” Accompanied by cries of “Shema Yisrael” their neshamos flew Heavenward as rivers of blood flowed below.
My students sat frozen in horror. One and a half million Jews — children, babies, mothers, and fathers — were killed in these pogromsal kiddush Hashem.
A girl sitting in the second row raised her hand. “Do you think …” she asked in a low frightened voice, “Do you think it could happen today?”
“Today?” Today the sun was shining outside and people were walking the streets without fear. Today we were learning history and no one was threatening us.
“Today,” she nodded. “Because today, I don’t know if I would have the strength to choose death in order to remain a Jew.”
We were all silent. The Cossacks left the classroom and only the frightening question remained hovering in the air.
Chazal say that when Rabi Akiva was taken out to be killed, it was the time for Kriyas Shema. As his flesh was raked with iron combs, Rabi Akiva recited the Shema and accepted the Sovereignty of Hashem.
Chazal do not emphasize Rabi Akiva’s mesirus nefesh in risking his life to teach Torah publicly, nor do they stress hismesirus nefesh and bravery in dying al kiddush Hashem. However, they praise him for the fact that while living, he recited Shema during his torture.
I glanced at my student, studying her innocent features. I had no doubt that sometimes she too faces obstacles and temptations. Sometimes the path on the other side probably seems easier and tempting. I was certain that she struggles many times to maintain her foothold in life. And I knew how much effort it takes nowadays, for every iota of progress.
“Today,” I answered, looking directly into her eyes, “today, you are already utilizing such strength. And today it may be even harder.”
Today, when there are no Cossacks in the streets and no terrifying pogroms, no Inquisition and no Communism, no shrieks of the Crusaders and no pounding of the Nazis’ boots — today, when there is was no shmad and no death, there is sacrifice.
There is sacrifice in the life we live and every moment that we struggle anew. We are constantly faced with decisions — to choose to persevere. Sometimes we have to swim against the current and it’s so difficult.
This is a life in which our accomplishments seem so ordinary that no one validates them or values them. We have to live this life every day anew instead of simply dying once for Hashem. That is the greatest mesirus nefesh of all.
It’s possible that withstanding a nisayon in life may be even greater than the one-time test of dying al kiddush Hashem.That is why we are commanded to “live through them,” to live a life of Torah with mesirus nefesh while withstanding life’s challenges.
The sounds of war returned to my classroom, this time with the battle against the yetzer hara. One and a half million pure souls gave up their lives in Poland al kiddush Hashem. And one young girl in tenth grade gives up her life for Hashem every single day.