As Modern Orthodox Jews, we espouse both serious Torah study and the pursuit of secular knowledge, all in the service of God. We have both feet firmly planted in the world of tradition and we are full members of broader American society. This fusion of worlds ideally enables us to live deeply religious lives while contributing to and gaining from general society.
But, we must ask ourselves, do we as Modern Orthodox Jews have a sense of mesirat nefesh, of self-sacrifice? Have we ever even used the term? Do we ever transcend our own needs in order to serve God, in order to serve our community?
At some level, the answer is a clear “yes.” We send our children to Jewish day schools, at great expense; we spend a not-insignificant amount of time and money in order to live a religiously committed life. And yet, all of those are part of the norms and expectations of our community, and something that, in many ways, is part of our own needs to live this kind of life.
But do we embrace a concept of self-sacrifice? Of — at least on certain occasions — pushing ourselves beyond our current norms to give ourselves fully to God and the Jewish people? I believe that this is a value with which our community struggles.
In this week’s parsha, Shelach, God commands Moses to send forth 12 scouts to survey the Land of Israel in anticipation of its conquest. However, in Devarim, when Moses later recounts this episode to the next generation of Israelites as they are on the cusp of entering the land (Deuteronomy 1:23), he states that it is the people who requested to dispatch the spies. The Sefat Emet offers a novel approach to this apparent discrepancy. At first, the people approached Moses out of their own initiative. Only then did God affirm their plan through a divine command.
The Sefat Emet then asks: Why did God support the people’s decision? After all, the mission was destined to end in abject failure. He posits that with only the desire of the people to take on this mission, it would have failed. Yet with God also commanding them, there was a possibility of success. The question they had to answer is: Would they follow Parshat Devarim or Parshat Shelach?
The spies could now choose to enter the land because it was something that they desired or because it was a mission they were sent on from God. If they could do the latter and set aside their own interests, if they could see themselves as God’s agents and as the vessel through which God’s will could be fulfilled, the mission would have succeeded.
As Sefat Emet writes:
Now that they had a command from God, they needed to give up (li’msor) and nullify their own desires, and act only in order to do what God desires, and had they done this, they would have succeeded… And so it is in every mitzvah — if a person is able to truly nullify all of her personal desires… just to do God’s will, she is deemed to be a person that gives her very soul (nefesh) for this mission. For one who attaches to this mitzvah her own desire is not truly a messenger [of the one who sent her].
The Sefat Emet here evokes the theme of mesirat nefesh. For him, this is our ongoing challenge when we do mitzvot. When we perform the very things we were commanded to do, do we bring to them our own desires, or do we see them purely as a way to serve God and do God’s will?
If this is how we approach mitzvot, it is also how we will approach various opportunities in our lives. If we orient ourselves to giving ourselves over to God when we do what God has explicitly directed, then under certain circumstances when the need is great and when we can truly make a difference, we will be able to hear God’s voice — less explicit, but no less real — sending us on a Divine mission, calling on us to make the self-sacrifice that is necessary to respond to this call.
For us Modern Orthodox Jews, orienting our lives around this principle is a profound challenge. We are active citizens in a country in which individualism and self-actualization are central values. We need to find those precious opportunities through which we can put aside our own interests and perform mesirat nefesh, to serve God and to serve the community. A recent newspaper editorial lamented the fact that our country lacks any type of mandatory national service. The citizenry does not cherish the value of communal service, of a sense of duty to the country and its citizens. It suggests that young Americans should put aside their own interests, even for only a year, in service of something broader than themselves. In a word, the op-ed proposed mesirat nefesh. We Modern Orthodox Jews must also learn to find ways in which we can rise above our individualism, and devote ourselves with mesirat nefesh to serving God and community. Each one of us must listen for the Divine call that is unique to us and answer it with the fullness of oneself.