The Last Lesson of their Lives

The Klausenberger Rebbe once told the story (שפע חיים – מועדים שבת שובה):

Like so many before them, a small group of Rabbis had been kidnapped, accused and imprisoned. Their crime? Being Jewish. They were given options: Either bow to the cross and denounce your belief in Hashem and His Torah, or die. To these Rabbis, the choice was obvious. By the next morning they would be welcomed to the Yeshiva Shel Maalah.

What does one do, knowing that tonight is their last night on earth? How does a Jew prepare to give their life Al Kiddush Hashem?

Pray for a miracle? Arrange a protest? Beg their tormentors for mercy?

No. These tzadikim had a singular concern. In there final hours they would ensure that the Torah they had learned would survive their deaths. Without hesitation, they cut into own their veins, and with the blood of their hands, they wrote on the walls of the prison cell.

*These Talmidei Chachamim were no ordinary scholars. They were Baalei HaTosfos – the brilliant French luminaries from the schools of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam. And the words that they wrote on that final night of their lives, are the immortalized in Bava Kamma 77a; the big Tosfos which takes up the entire page. The Daf HaYomi for Thursday, 8 Sh’vat 5784.

(The Munkatcher Rebbe (דברי תורה ח:לא) told this story in the name of the Bnei Yissaschar.)

It’s a sobering thought. How much of the Torah that we learn today has been acquired and preserved through the blood and tears of our ancestors and teachers? Generations of people who died as they lived – dedicated to preserving Torah and Mesora. Somehow, through the long and often dark exile, Klal Yisrael has learned that Mesirus Nefesh is the key to our immortality.

Moreover, we have discovered that the capacity to give our lives for Hashem and His People is baked in to the souls of every Jew. As the Baal HaTanya (פרק י”ח) writes:

אֲפִילוּ קַל שֶׁבְּקַלִּים וּפוֹשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מוֹסְרִים נַפְשָׁם עַל קְדוּשַּׁת ה׳, עַל הָרוֹב, וְסוֹבְלִים עִינּוּיִם קָשִׁים שֶׁלֹּא לִכְפּוֹר בַּה׳ אֶחָד.

Even the most flippant of flippant, and the transgressors of Jewish people, in the majority of cases, sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of Hashem’s Name and suffer harsh torture rather than deny the one God, although they be boors and illiterate and ignorant of God’s greatness.

Today, we are witnessing the heroism and tragedy of young men, husbands and fathers, risking their lives with unimaginable Mesirus Nefesh for Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael.

An entire country has mobilized to ensure the safety, security and sovereignty of our nation in our homeland. It is clear to me that our Chayalim are drawing from the same wells as the Baalei HaTosfos; those deep waters that run in our collective national soul since the days of Avraham Avinu.

The land upon which our nation lives and the Gemaros that we learn, have both been acquired with the blood of our greatest heroes.

But martyrdom has never been the ideal. It is always a tragedy. We are a people who celebrate life, and our deepest tefillah is that it is time for this heartbreak to end.

The Yid HaKadosh of Pshishcha was once lamenting the great pain that Klal Yisrael would experience just before Mashiach arrives. His Talmid, Reb Simcha Bunim tried to console the Rebbe: “But is it not true that Hashem only gives us challenges that we can handle?”

The Rebbe replied: “Reb Bunim, you have no idea just how much pain the Jewish people is able to handle.”

We have enormous capacities to withstand the pain. But just because we can handle it, does not mean that it’s ok, or that we’re ok.

We’re decisively not ok. This war is not ok. Over 100 days of our brothers and sisters held as hostages in the depths of hell is not ok. The excruciating pain of widows and orphans, of grieving parents and children is not ok.

Every tefillah is a protest to the Ribono Shel Olam. But within these protests there are important questions that we need to address: When the time for self-sacrifice is over, when we can finally live in peace, with safety and security for Jews in Israel and around the world, what will we do with our lives?

When Jews no longer need to die for Torah and Eretz Yisrael, will we be willing to live for these same truths?

The Seforno (שמות יב:ב) explains that this is at the heart of our very first national obligation: the creation of our National Jewish Calendar.

The Torah instructs: “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים – This month is the first of the months of the year for you.” From now on these months will be yours, to do with as you like – you have My authority to organize your own time. This is by way of contrast to the years when you were enslaved when you had no control over your time or timetable at all. While you were enslaved, your days, hours, minutes even, were always at the beck and call of your taskmasters.

Leaving Mitzrayim means that we could finally decide how to spend our time, and in that new found freedom there is a world of responsibility. What would we do if and when we have the time? Would we fill it with meaning, purpose and growth? Or would we fill it with the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and apathy?

This is the same question that Hashem is posing to us today: We want the war to end. But why? We want to live securely in our homeland. But why? Why do we want to live? Why do we want to prevail? Of course we want the pain to end; that’s normal and healthy and necessary. But what do we want to do thereafter? What is the purpose of Jewish existence when we can choose to live as we wish?

Hashem is challenging us to look deep within ourselves and ask: Are our soldiers giving their lives so that Klal Yisrael can return to safely binge watching TV and fighting about politics? Or perhaps we are awakening to the truth that if Jews are willing to die for Eretz Yisrael, for Torah and for each other, then these are the things worth living for as well. Perhaps it is time to reengage with the reasons why Klal Yisrael exists at all.

So we continue daven for the safety and success of our Chayalim, the return of our hostages and the refuah (both mental and physical) for all those who are in pain. But beyond this, we should daven for ourselves and our families; that we should merit to choose a life of Mesirus Nefesh as well.

Hashem should help us, that when He takes us out of this “Mitzrayim”, we will know exactly what to do with our lives.