By Shlomo Riskin
“I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel…” (Leviticus 22:32)
Neither the Bible nor Jewish law has ever seen martyrdom as an ideal to be courted. There is the commandment that “God must be sanctified;” however, prior to this commandment for martyrdom, we find in last week’s portion the words: “You shall guard My statutes and My laws which person shall do and live by” (Leviticus 18:5). As our sages teach, “You shall live by My laws – and not die by them.” Interestingly, Maimonides begins his discussion of the laws pertaining to sanctifying God not with the occasions when we must give up our lives, but rather with the times that we must live: “All of the House of Israel is commanded concerning sanctifying the great name of God… and are warned against desecrating His name… How so? When an idolater comes and forces an Israelite to transgress one of the biblical laws or be killed, the Jew must transgress the law rather than be killed; as it is written ‘You shall live by them and not die by them.’ And someone who allows himself to be killed rather than transgress the law is considered culpable for his [own] soul” (Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 5).
Maimonides cites the Talmudic passage that states that one must give up his life rather than commit idolatry, adultery or murder. In all other cases, one must transgress the law rather than accept martyrdom. This Talmudic approach is encapsulated by the phrase, “It is better to desecrate one Sabbath and remain alive so that you can keep many more Sabbaths” (B.T. Yoma 85b). However, our Talmudic sages further ruled that during a time of persecution, a Jew must be willing to give up his life rather than commit the most minor transgression “regarding his shoelaces” (B.T. Sanhedrin 74).
So, the value of a human life is heavily emphasized, and martyrdom seems to be only a position of last resort, but in times of persecution we must be willing to give up our lives rather than change the smallest detail of how we tie our shoes. How can one’s shoelace be so consequential?
The very verse that teaches us to live by our laws (Leviticus 18:5) is followed by 30 verses prohibiting sexual immorality. Each of these laws falls under the rubric of adultery, one of the sins that we may not transgress, even on pain of death. Why does the Bible present a ringing declaration of the importance of living by our laws and follow it with a list of laws that demand death rather than transgression? There is an amazing dialogue in the Talmud between Alexander the Great and the rabbis. Alexander asked, “What must a person do in order to live?” They responded, “He must kill himself.” He further asked, “What must a person do in order to die?” They responded, “He must preserve his life” (B.T. Tamid 32a).
Our sages are teaching a crucial principle: The only life truly worth living is a life consecrated to an ideal that is greater than any individual life. No one lives forever. If a person lives his entire life only in order to keep on living, he is bound to fail. However, if someone gives up his life for an ideal that is greater than himself, he succeeds in continuing that ideal – and something of himself – into the future.
This idea is also found in the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. God teaches Abraham the greatest paradox of life: only if we are willing to sacrifice our future will our nation continue into the future. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it very cogently: “If a man has not found a value for which he is willing to die, he is not fit to live.”
Many years ago, my revered teacher Rav Soloveitchik explained that it is very difficult to assess the relative importance of any one of our commandments; each is important in and of itself, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. However, there are certain commandments that assume special importance in certain historical periods. The descendants of Amalek who attempt to destroy the Jewish people are the ones with the best sense of which commandment is most significant for each generation.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, all of the Roman populace wore white shoelaces; the rabbis decreed that Jews wear black shoelaces in mourning for the Temple. The Romans were anxious to make us forget our national sovereignty and the dream of our Holy Temple. Hence it was crucial, even to the point of giving up our lives, that we wear black shoelaces so that future generations would never forget Jerusalem.
Rav Soloveitchik said then, and it is even truer today, that after the Holocaust, the most significant event in Jewish history was the declaration of the State of Israel and Israel is the most important means for securing the Jewish future. Anti-Semites realize this; hence their ongoing efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state. Giving up one’s life for the State of Israel is eternalizing one’s life for Jewish future.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.