Acharei Mot תשע”ט
A curious verse in this week’s portion (Leviticus 18:5) informs us:
ה) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם אֲנִי יְדֹוָד:
5) You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which people shall carry out and shall live through them – I am Hashem.
A decree (חק) is a law for which we lack its logical underpinning such as which foods we may eat. A law (משפט), on the other hand, is a practice that any reasonable person or society would enact, such as not to steal, even if the Torah had not commanded it. In the above verse, Hashem promises us that, by observing His decrees and laws, we shall live. We of course realize that the verse’s meaning is not its words’ straightforward understanding, viz, that by keeping Hashem’s laws a person will live forever. Indeed, we see even very righteous people die.
Recognizing this, Rashi quotes the Midrash, which explains that “shall live” refers to life in the world to come.
וחי בהם – לעולם הבא שאם תאמר בעולם הזה והלא סופו הוא מת:
With this we can begin to unlock the meaning of the words, “I am Hashem” after the promise. We can trust Him to keep His promise to pay us with life in the world to come.
It is easy to understand why a person who keeps Hashem’s decrees is entitled to the reward of life in the world to come. As a faithful servant, he keeps the decree only because Hashem has commanded him to, even though he does not understand its reasoning. And yet, keeping the Torah’s logical laws (משפטים) also entitles the performer to reward in the world to come even though he is only doing what is right and logical to do!
The Sages teach us that although we may think that we understand the reasoning behind the laws (משפטים), we should still do them only because Hashem has commanded them, and not because they seem logical and correct to us. This approach is essential when confronting contemporary moral dilemmas, such as the highly charged issues of abortion and euthanasia. It is not within the purview of human thinking and reasoning to render a decision on these matters. The human mind is too inventive and can formulate rationales for even the most depraved practices. A person’s personal biases also influence his thought process without him even realizing it. The debates continue for decades, with the pendulum swinging from one side to the other and back again between the two positions without ever reaching a consensus or resolution. The only option for a clear objective ruling is for Hashem, the law’s Originator, to decide what is permitted and what is not. The prohibition against murder is a Divine law, not one of human origin, and only Hashem can decide what is permitted and what is not. Only the One Who gives life can determine when life may be taken.
When faced with moral questions, we turn to the Sages to enlighten us with Hashem’s position on the matter. Hashem in His Torah has provided the answers to these and all moral issues for all time. The Sages, steeped in the Torah’s wisdom, are experts at deriving the correct decisions from the Torah. In their brilliant responsa, the Sages have, for centuries, addressed and answered the most daunting moral issues facing science and medicine, including those in the 21st century.
Here lies another reason for Hashem saying, “I am Hashem” at the end of this verse. “I am Hashem who knows your every thought and feeling, and I know whether you keep the laws (משפטים) because you think they are correct and proper, or if you keep them because I have commanded them. If you keep My laws, I will reward you with life in the world to come. If you keep your laws, you are not entitled to reward.
There is another important lesson derived from this verse, which says,
אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם
“which people shall carry out and shall live through them.” The Sages learn, “You shall live through them, and not die through them.”
This is the source for the law that if a person’s life is in danger, he may transgress a law of the Torah to save his life. When someone’s life is in danger, all of the laws of the Shabbat may be violated to save him. On Shabbat, emergency responders may talk on the radio, get into their cars, speed to the scene, use all types of electronic instruments, and may even drive back home to be ready for another call. Many a husband has taken his wife who was in labor to the hospital in the car on Shabbat to deliver the baby safe and sound. While every effort is made to minimize the incidents of Shabbat violation, what needs to be done, gets done. If someone is starving, he may eat unkosher food to save himself. Saving a Jewish life trumps all the laws of the Torah. This concept is derived from this verse, “And you shall live by them” – and not die by them. The Torah is a תורת חיים – Torah of life, and we are obligated to transgress a law to save a life.
Maimonides writes (Foundations of the Torah 5:1):
כשיעמוד עובד כוכבים ויאנוס את ישראל לעבור על אחת מכל מצות האמורות בתורה או יהרגנו יעבור ואל יהרג שנאמר במצות אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם ואם מת ולא עבר הרי זה מתחייב בנפשו
When a gentile tells a Jew, “Transgress a commandment in the Torah, or I will kill you!” the Jew should transgress the commandment and not be killed, for it says in the Torah, “and you shall live by them,” and not die by them. And if he was killed because he would not transgress the commandment, he is guilty of causing his own death.
It is clear from Maimonides that a person may not elect to give his life instead of transgressing the law, for he writes that if he does, he is held accountable for his own death.
In the next law, Maimonides writes:
ב) במה דברים אמורים בשאר מצות חוץ מעבודת כוכבים וגלוי עריות ושפיכת דמים אבל שלש עבירות אלו אם יאמר לו עבור על אחת מהן או תהרג יהרג ואל יעבור
2) This law applies to all the commandments except for idol worship, sinning with a forbidden woman, or murder. As to each of these three sins, if someone will say to a person, “either you commit one of these sins or I will kill you,” he must forfeit his life rather than commit the sin.
Citing an incident with the Sage Rabba, the Talmud informs us (Sanhedrin 74a) that the source for one giving up his life not to take someone else’s is one of logic.
רוצח גופיה מנא לן סברא הוא דההוא דאתא לקמיה דרבה ואמר ליה אמר לי מרי דוראי זיל קטליה לפלניא ואי לא קטלינא לך אמר ליה לקטלוך ולא תיקטול מי יימר דדמא דידך סומק טפי דילמא דמא דהוא גברא סומק טפי
How do we know that one should give up his life and not take the life of another? It is based on logic. A person came to Rabba and told him. “The gentile governor of my city told me, ‘kill so and so, and if you don’t, I will kill you!’ Am I permitted to kill so and so?” Rabba answered. “Let them kill you, and don’t you kill. Who says that your blood is redder than his? Maybe his blood is redder!”
Initially, the logic doesn’t seem straight forward. Who says that his blood is redder than mine? Why should I take the hit?
To fully appreciate the concept, we need to see Rashi’s commentary.
מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי – כלומר מאי דעתיך למשרי מילתא משום וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם, טעמו של דבר לפי שחביבה נפשן של ישראל לפני המקום יותר מן המצות, אמר הקב”ה תבטל המצוה ויחיה זה, אבל עכשיו, שיש כאן ישראל נהרג והמצוה בטילה למה ייטב בעיני המקום לעבור על מצותו, למה יהיה דמך חביב עליו יותר מדם חבירך ישראל
Why are you thinking that you should be permitted to kill him, because of the concept of “and you should live through them?” That concept does not apply here. The reason for that rule is because a Jewish soul is more precious to Hashem than His mitzvot. Therefore, Hashem has said, “Let the mitzvah be transgressed and the person stay alive.” But here, someone is going to die either way (and no life will be saved by transgressing the law), so why would Hashem want you to transgress His law, and commit a murder? What makes you think that you are so precious to Hashem that He would want you to murder another Jew to stay alive? Maybe the other person is more precious, and Hashem wants him to stay alive!
That makes sense and provides, though with little consolation, the reasoning behind not killing another, even at the expense of losing one’s life.
What about the other two, not sinning with a woman and not worshipping an idol?
The rule that one is not permitted to sin with a married woman to save his life derives from the prohibition against murder. The Torah teaches us that in a situation where a married woman is assaulted, she, as a victim against her will, is exempt from punishment. Yet in expressing this idea, the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:26) says something very peculiar.
וְלַנַּעֲרָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה דָבָר אֵין לַנַּעֲרָ חֵטְא מָוֶת כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָקוּם אִישׁ עַל רֵעֵהוּ וּרְצָחוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כֵּן הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה
26) But you shall do nothing to the woman, for she has committed no capital sin, for like a man who rises up against his fellow and murders him, so it is here.
Why the comparison to murder? The woman’s innocence is because she was a victim, not a perpetrator. That is reason enough to exempt her from punishment.
The lesson is that just as one must forfeit his life rather than kill another, so, too, one must forfeit his life before committing a sin with a married woman. This rule applies even if the woman is agreeable to sin with him.
Living in the permissive society that we do, this law may strike us as bizarre and unacceptable. Why should one have to give up his life not to commit a sin that will not hurt anybody?
This is an example of how human minds cannot grasp the ramifications of immorality, and why matters of morality need to derive only from Hashem. We are unable to appreciate the havoc and destruction that goes on in the heavenly places from sins of this nature. Only Hashem knows, and we don’t find out until we finish our lives down here. We can get a glimpse by considering the extremely severe punishments that the Torah puts on these crimes. When the participants deliberately and willingly violate the law, they are punishable by the death penalty in a Jewish court. Additionally, their souls are cut off from Hashem in heaven. Unfortunately, because of our influential surroundings, we find it difficult to contemplate these ideas.
What is the source of the third instance in which a person must give his life instead of transgressing, i.e., worshipping a foreign god?
It is based on the first verse in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5):
וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ
6) You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.
What does it mean to love Hashem “with all your soul”? It means that you should love Hashem more than anything in the world, even more than your own soul. And if it should ever come to pass that you are asked to give up your life for Him, you must do it.
How does this translate into “love of Hashem?” How deep our relationship with Hashem must be, is implied here.
Think back to the first time you thought that you were in love with someone. Would the term “lovesick” apply? You were so infatuated with the person that you could not conceive of living without that person as part of your life. It is as if your whole existence depended on that person, without whom life wouldn’t be worth living.
This is the true meaning of אהבה – ahava – the word for love in the Torah. The root of the word is הב , which means to give. In context, I am so in love with You Hashem, I am so infatuated with you, that my life is given to you, and without you isn’t worth living. Therefore, if ever put to the test of putting another god before You, I am prepared to give up my life for You, because there is no life without You. This is the relationship that we should have with Hashem, and this is what we should think about when saying these words in the Shema. This is the ultimate level of “love of Hashem” and what we should aspire to achieve in life. This is, of course, an extremely high spiritual level, but it is something for which we should strive.
The Talmud in Tractate Berachot (61b) recounts the last moments of Rabbi Akiva’s life. Rabbi Akiva was sentenced to death for teaching Torah at a time when the Romans had outlawed it.
בשעה שהוציאו את רבי עקיבא להריגה זמן קריאת שמע היה והיו סורקים את בשרו במסרקות של ברזל והיה מקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו עד כאן אמר להם כל ימי הייתי מצטער על פסוק זה בכל נפשך אפילו נוטל את נשמתך אמרתי מתי יבא לידי ואקיימנו ועכשיו שבא לידי לא אקיימנו היה מאריך באחד עד שיצתה נשמתו באחד
When they took Rabbi Akiva out to kill him, it was time to read the Shema. As they were raking his flesh with steel combs, Rabbi Akiva said the Shema and accepted upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven. His students said to him, “It goes this far?” Rabbi Akiva responded. “My whole life I worried if I will merit to fulfill the verse, ‘you should love Hashem with all your soul, even if you must give up your soul,’ and now that I finally have the opportunity, I should not fulfill it?” He stretched out the last word אחד -Hashem is one – until his soul left him.
We see that whenever Rabbi Akiva said the Shema, he would think about how he would like to sanctify Hashem’s name by giving up his life for Hashem. Indeed, this idea is quoted in the Mishna Berurah (Orach Chaim 61:3) to explain the words of the Shulchan Aruch, which say that a person should read the Shema with awe and trepidation.
ג) באימה ויראה – ונראה (ב) דאימה ויראה זו היא באופן זה שיכוין בשעה שהוא קורא את שמע לקבל עליו עול מ”ש להיות נהרג על קידוש השם המיוחד דזהו בכל נפשך אפילו נוטל את נפשך ועל זה אמר הכתוב כי עליך הורגנו כל היום כי אז בכונה זו יקראנה באימה ויראה ורתת וזיע
3) The awe and trepidation mentioned here should be reached by thinking, as he reads the Shema, that he wishes to accept the yolk of heaven upon himself such that he is prepared to give up his life to sanctify Hashem’s holy name, for this is the meaning of “with all your soul, even if Hashem takes your soul”… When he reads it with these thoughts, it will be with awe and trepidation.
It is also stated that if a person is truly prepared to give his life to sanctify Hashem’s holy name as he thinks it, Hashem considers it as if he has actually done so.
This brings us back to the words וחי בהם – and you shall live by them. The Torah is a Torah of life, and when faced with a life-threatening situation, Hashem says, “your life is more precious to Me than My mitzvah, you may transgress My mitzvah to save your life.” As far as the three mitzvot for which we must give our lives, בהם וחי- and you shall live by them also applies, but, in such a case, the long life will be in the world to come.