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Parshas Emor (5770)

To Die For

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Emor, we find the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s name. As it is written, “… I shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel…” (Leviticus 22:32). This commandment specifically requires one to be martyred rather than publicly transgress any religious law where religious persecution is intended.

As you know, throughout the centuries and millennia, our holy ancestors have sanctified G-d’s Name countless times, and through their deaths they made the ultimate statement of faith – that the Torah is G-d’s absolute truth and is even worth dying for. [To learn more about this fascinating mitzvah and all its many details and applications, see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s excellent work Handbook of Jewish Thought Volume 2 pages 17-27.]

What you may not know is that, according to most Halachic authorities, one who is being put to death in sanctification of G-d’s Name in the presence of at least ten Jews, is obligated to make a blessing – “Blessed are You … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and instructed us to publicly sanctify His Name” - before fulfilling the commandment.

The Rishonim (medieval commentaries) ask why it is that we make blessings before performing most mitzvos, yet we find many other mitzvos upon which the Rabbis did not institute a blessing, e.g. the commandment to give tzedakah (charity) to a poor person.

One answer given by the Avudraham is that the Rabbis did not ordain a blessing on a mitzvah that depends on another person for its fulfillment, such as giving tzedakah, since the recipient may be unwilling to be helped and the whole mitzvah will then have become nullified.

Based on this reasoning of the Avudraham, the Shelah HaKadosh (in Shaar HaOsiyos - Os Alef) asks why one should then make a blessing before being put to death in sanctification of G-d’s Name, since this mitzvah’s fulfillment is also dependent on another person – the fellow who is about to kill him!

The Shelah HaKadosh answers that the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem is not a commandment to actually die for G-d Torah – to the point that, if the guy changes his mind at the last minute and doesn’t kill the Jew, he hasn’t fulfilled the commandment. Rather, it is the statement that one makes by being ready to die for G-d’s Torah that is the essence of the mitzvah – and that is fulfilled whether he ends up getting killed or not.

In fact, the Rabbis teach us that when a Jew reads the first paragraph of the Shema each day where it says “And you shall love the Lord, your G-d … with your whole life” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and he includes the intent that he is ready to give up his life to sanctify God's name, it is considered in heaven as if he had actually done so. The Rashb”a (in his Responsa 5:55) phrased it as follows: "King David wrote in Psalms (44:23): 'We were killed for You [G-d] every day'. Is it possible to be killed every day? When we read in the Shema, ‘with your whole life', and we undertake to fulfill those words, it is as if we are being killed at that moment for G-d, may He be blessed. When a Jew undertakes to perform a mitzvah when the opportunity will arise, it is considered as if he did it.”

All through history, our great ancestors were able to die for G-d and His Torah because they knew what it meant to live for G-d and His Torah. Now, thank G-d, we live in a relatively tranquil period of history for the Jewish people, when the likelihood of any Jew having to die for his religion is practically nil.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have anything to die for. Because if we have nothing to die for, then we have nothing to live for.

Hmmm ….. something to think about.

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