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Mesirus Nefesh – The Secret to Jewish Survival

We often hear athletes come off the court or playing filed and brag about having “left it all on the field” or having “given it all.” If only they understood what that actually means, to “give it all.”

Jewish history is filled with instances when Jews, individual people like you and me, were called upon to actually give their all. And, because they did, we continue. The lesson in their sacrifices – the Auschwitz prisoners who risked their lives for a few ounces of flour to bake matzoh for Pesach, the IDF soldiers standing watch along Israel’s dangerous borders, the doting grandfather serving as the sandek at the bris of his grandson, knowing what sacrifices he would be willing to make for the soul of the baby – is too often underappreciated and even lost on this generation.

To appreciate sacrifice, one must know want. We have, I fear, done a great disservice to our sons and daughters by raising them in a world in which sacrifice is stam an alien concept, a world where gratification is always an instant away, a swipe away, an Uber away, a post away, a world in which – God forbid! they should address any adversity. There are those who might read my words and dismiss them; suggesting that I am being overly dramatic. For them martyrdom is a trope belonging to ancient storytelling, to history. What they don’t understand is that sacrifice is a lifelong reality. While mesirus nefesh might mean, literally, the giving over of one’s life, it does not necessarily demand the loss of life. What it does demand is a recognition that there are things more important than your life, and a deep willingness to act always with that recognition in mind.

“If you were born a Jew, you are descended from heroes and heroines, who at various points in history, chose to relinquish their property, their homes, and sometimes their lives, for the sake of their religious principles.” So, Sara Yoheved Rigler begins her thoughtful essay, If You Were Born a Jew (Aish.com). Fair enough. Her words and sentiments are familiar thought to anyone with a passing knowledge of Jewish history. However, she follows that familiar thought immediately with this, “Masses of other Jews – sometimes the majority – chose to forfeit their core identity as Jews in order to assimilate into the prevailing milieu. “You are not descended from them.” (emphasis mine)

The implication is clear. The continuation of the Jewish people is, and has always been, determined by those who “…chose to relinquish their property, their homes, and sometimes their lives…”  Heroes! Such was the character of Chur, grandfather of Bezalel. It is because of his character that Torah is specific in naming Chur in Bezalel’s lineage, “Bezalel son of Uri son of Chur, of the tribe of Judah.” Such mention is significant because, as we know often even the most prominent personalities appear in Torah absent their lineage.

Rashi tells us that Chur was the son of Miriam, which the Sifsei Chachamim teaches further merits the spiritual heights Bezalel was able to attain. Why does the Torah feel the need to provide such extensive lineage to Bezalel? It is true that, as the artisan responsible for the construction of the Mishkan, his bona fides had to be exemplary but isn’t this a bit much?

Hardly.

Chazal tell us that when he constructed the Mishkan, Bezalel was a mere 13 years old. A Bar Mitzvha! He was likely only just becoming comfortable laying tefillin. Imagine what the community thought when Moshe introduced him as the chief architect of God’s sanctuary! It’s no wonder he gained gravitas from his great Zayde Chur.

Still, the Torah tells us that God Himself, “…has proclaimed by name, Bezalel…” Certainly, that is credibility enough, no? Perhaps not for the people who were looking at this wisp of a young man and wondering if they could believe their eyes and ears. But, as our tradition teaches, “If you were born a Jew…”

In the Midrash Shemot Rabbah we learn that Chur is the personification of mesirus nefesh. Chur stood alone against the wild throng as they danced in their madness making the Golden Calf. And, for his valiant efforts? He was martyred. Rashi (Shemot 32:5) cites the Vayikra Rabbah, “Aaron saw Chur, his sister’s son rebuking them, and they killed him…” In that instant, God promised to reward Chur for his sacrifice. What could possibly be a worthy reward for such a sacrifice?

A grandson endowed with the talent to build the Mishkan.

Chur, the zayde, is included in Bezalel’s lineage to make clear that no mesirus nefesh ever goes unrecognized. Miriam too is recognized in this instance because of her own bravery in standing up to her father who divorced his wife out of a sense of hopelessness when Pharaoh decreed that all male Jewish babies be thrown into the Nile. She told him he was wrong and that his response was worse than Pharaoh’s decree! She really thought she knew better than her own father, the Gadol Hador!
She did.

Mesirus Nefesh is the secret to Jewish survival. The willingness to sacrifice all for what is right is the reason we continue when so many “great” empires have come and gone, lost to the sands of time. The Sefas Emes cites a Zohar that says that when Bezalel was introduced to the community, his face transformed to look exactly as his grandfather’s.

The Meshech Chochmah cites the Chassid Yaavetz speaking of how Jews reacted to the decrees of the Inquisition. The “simple” Jews unhesitatingly gave their lives rather than forsake their faith. But many of the well-educated, those schooled in philosophy and culture, were not so admirable. They hemmed. They hawed. They rationalized.

They “saved their skins” and lost the future!

Chassid Yaavetz teaches of emunah peshuta, simple faith. When faced with the hard choice of faith or life, one must rely on simple faith and give up one’s life rather than abandon God; One must be a Chur.

An elderly holocaust survivor once told me that in Auschwitz those who were trying to figure it all out, fun zei iz gornisht geblieben, from them nothing remained. But, ober die vos zeinen givein greit moiser nefesh zein ohn kein kashes – those who were ready to sacrifice without asking questions – fun zei iz asach geblieben, from them a lot remained.

Ki’shemo kein hu – for as his name, so is he. To give a name to a child is no small matter. A name roots a child, captures his soul. So it was that Meir and Adina were both excited and anxious about choosing the name for their son after three daughters! Meir suggested naming the boy after Adina’s grandfather. But Adina was hesitant.

“I loved my zayde and he was such a nice man and good person. But he wasn’t a talmid chacham. He was just a simple Jew.”

Meir listened thoughtfully. It was true, there was merit in naming their son after a gadol. Maybe Adina’s hesitation was well placed. “I’ll ask my rav,” he said. “He’ll be able to guide us.”

They agreed that that was a sensible way forward. When Meir presented their dilemma to his rav, the rav asked about the grandfather. Meir described the grandfather as he understood him to be, someone who worked in the rag trade and cared for his family.

“When did he come to America?’ the rav asked.

“I believe in the ’30s or ’40s,” Meir answered.

“And his children, where are they today?”

“All frum. All his grandchildren are b’nei Torah.”

The rav’s eyebrows raised. “You describe him as a simple Jew, but this man was no ‘simple’ Jew. Anyone who lived in America in the ’30s or ’40s and raised a family of b’nei Torah was anything but a simple Jew.

“Name the baby after him.”

Mesirus Nefesh must be reflexive, immediate. It can’t be taught. It comes from the heart and soul, not the intellect. A mother rushing into a burning home to save a child does so not from training but from the urgent demand of her heart. She doesn’t think it; she does it. Mesirus nefesh does not make you a hero, not in the sense that we often think of heroes. There are no medals or pats on the back. You get no “likes” or views. Often, there is only one companion alongside you during your sacrifice, God.

That is enough.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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