Rosh Chodesh Av Torah Essay: Mesirut Nefesh

Three examples of three different deeds done by Talmudic sages - how can they be defined as Mesirut Nefesh?

Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies, | updated: 11:09

Matan  Women's Institute
Matan Women's Institute
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Dvar  Torah by Rabbanit Surele Rosen, a graduate of Matan’s Advanced Talmudic Institute and the head of Metivta: Matan’s Advanced Talmud Program. Surele is also a student in Hilkhata: Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute. She is a Halakhic responder as part of the Meshivat Nefesh project online. Surele is a certified Toenet Rabbanit and writes a column on Parshat HaShavua for the Makor Rishon newspaper. She is married and lives in Jerusalem with her family.

Rosh Chodesh Av calls for introspection about the causes of the destruction. Thousands of years after the burning of the Temple, we sometimes find it difficult to identify with and experience the intensity of the devastating loss. In our search for ways that will help us find the relevance of this crucial point in the history of our people, we can turn to the Ashkenazi Yom Kippur prayer book or the Sephardi prayers for Tisha B’av.

Interestingly, a Piyut recited on Yom Kippur offers an historical perspective that can help develop a better understanding of what we can adopt as a relevant approach to the destruction. Midrash Eleh Ezkerah of the Ten Martyrs lists ten sages that died sanctifying Hashem’s name. Since the ten Chachamim were not contemporaries, we conclude that the cause they died for is not restricted to a given moment in history. Rather, it is a central value in Torah that is worth surrendering one’s life for, whenever tragically challenged. If our enemies threaten and then enforce upon us a life that is Torah-ridden, that is not a life worth living.

Traditionally we understand Mesirut Nefesh by the literal meaning of the words, i.e: the willingness to give over one’s life in order not to transgress the three fundamental לאוין (forbidden acts) : idol worship, illicit sexual relations and taking a life. But, thankfully, how many of us have faced a situation where it’s either transgressing the above three or sacrificing our lives, G-d forbid? Of course we must never forget our long history of suffering and oppression, but we are grateful for not having to undergo similar hardships, and continuously pray that we never will.

Having said that, the challenge to understand what Mesirut Nefesh is all about is even bigger. We are not alone in this search for understanding – Rabbi Akiva himself, one of the Ten Martyrs exclaims out of the depth of his sufferings “All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all thy soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if He takes thy soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it?” (Berachot 61b). There are different ways to interpret Rabbi Akiva’s words, but it is clear that Rabbi Akiva admits that whilst living, even if it is a life of Torah, it is puzzling to discern what the totality of being immersed in the worship of Hashem means? Furthermore – is this totality at all possible?

If we look at the sugiya in the Talmud (Berachot 20a) that brings up the question of Mesirut Nefesh, we are surprised to find a different, and fresh, approach to how we usually understand it. Rav Papa is quoted asking Abaye why it is that the earlier generation of Rav Yehuda was blessed with miracles while their present one isn’t.  Is it because they studied more Torah? That can’t possibly be the reason, since the depth and width of knowledge in Rav Papa’s generation is greater. Then what is it?  His answer is surprising. Abaye explains that they had Mesirut Nefesh sanctifying Hashem’s name, while the present generation doesn’t.

Abaye then brings three examples of three different deeds of Chachamim. The first is Rav Adah Bar Ahava who sees a woman he mistakenly thinks to be Jewish walking around the market wearing a very expensive and ostentatious upper garment. Rav Adah walks over and tears it off. The woman brings him to court for shaming her in public where Rav Adah finds out that she isn’t Jewish and is made to pay a very high compensation. Rav Adah then asks the woman for her name, which turns out to be מתון (moderate, measured). He concludes that her name is more than a hint for himself,  that he should have acted in a more level-headed manner, and not have been driven by his extremism.

Abaye then goes on to bring the story of Rav Giddal who used to sit at the entrance to the women’s Mikve and explain the Halakhot of immersion. Chachamim asked him: are you not afraid of the Yetzer Harah?! Then again Abaye tells of the famous Rabbi Yochanan, head of the highest Yeshiva of Eretz Israel, who sat at the exit of the women’s Mikve so that they should behold his outstanding good looks and have beautiful children. Chachamim challenge Rabbi Yochanan as well: Are you not afraid of Ayin Harah?!

All of the three examples told by Abaye are stories of Mesirut Nefesh. But how so? They are indeed very different to what we perceive as giving over one’s soul.

However, looking closely and deeply we can clearly see that all three sages acted out of what they were convinced was the most necessary thing to do. Rav Adah finds it a painful absurdity that a woman, and for that matter, anyone, should walk around clad in an extravagantly expensive garment amongst the poor people of the market. Rav Giddal is afraid that the Mitzvah of purifying oneself will not be kept properly, since the women are not taught the necessary Halakhot. Rav Yochanan deems it an important value that the beauty of the soul be matched with physical beauty.

All three sages had a lot to risk. All had a lot at stake, and are indeed challenged and criticized – either by their own conscience (Rav Adah), or by their peers. But they are not afraid of social disapproval, and of people bad-mouthing them. They gave themselves over to what they deemed right at the time. Mesirut Nefesh, then, is the unsevered connection to what we understand to be the will of G-d at any given time. It’s about silencing obvious objections and oppositions to what we know to be true and right.

Abaye points out that his generation had lost that connection, and that is the reason G-d does not grant them miracles. If the sages of his present generation are not able to give themselves over to something higher than social consensus then Hashem will not change the order of nature for them.

The destruction meant that the center of worship established by Hashem, our unsevered connection to Him as a People, was cut off. Our prophets lamented the loss of religious integrity – our People moved further and further away from the inner meaning of Temple worship. The way then to re-establish that relationship, to bring about Geula, is to be truly attentive to what we know to be true and right. This is the core of Mesirut Nefesh.

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