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Did the Patriarchs Set Unreasonable Demands for Us?

Published on Monday April 27th, 2020

Our history is replete with stories describing Mesirut Nefesh, the self-sacrifice to perform Mitzvot at all costs, starting with our exceptional Patriarchs and Matriarchs who sacrificed themselves, often at the risk of their own lives.But what does this concept of Mesirut Nefesh mean to us, when we do not share our ancestors’ spiritual "level", nor face the challenges of Jews of old? Is it really possible to manifest Mesirut Nefesh in the practice of Mitzvot today?

Ready to Sacrifice Their Own Lives ...

There are numerous examples of Jews who sanctified God by putting their lives in danger, both throughout the Tanach scriptures and in Jewish history. Avraham Avinu, for example, agreed to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, and the latter did not object. One may also quote the greatness of Hanna, who wholeheartedly accepted to sacrifice her seven sons so they would not bow down before an idol.

Other stories in our historical context over different periods arouse admiration and laudability, such as the Jews of the Crusader period, the Marranos in Spain, and more recently, the Jews who lived behind the Iron Curtain and zealously performed the Mitzvot, against the odds of being arrested by the Communists. One may also quote Jews who endured the Shoah and tried to remain faithful to the Torah as best they could, right under the noses of their killers.

Today, when, thank God, it is much easier to perform a Mitzvah where there is no immediate danger lurking in the background and everything is geographically closer, is there any real value in performing mitzvot without constraints?

An analysis of the word Nefesh will allow us to consider an innovative aspect of the idea of Mesirut Nefesh. The word Nefesh, which means "soul", also means "will". For example, when Avraham Avinu asked the sons of Het, "If it is in your soul that I bury my dead ..." (Bereshit 23,18). Rashi explains that "your soul" here means "your will", because in fact, and this is the key point to our answer, the soul's devotion is ultimate, the submission to adhere to the will of God and keep his commandments...

Each Generation Faces Its Own Difficulties

When a man rises early to go to the synagogue, despite the fact he would have much preferred to stay in bed, or when a person parts from money to perform Tzedakah, although this money could have been used towards bare necessities, these people are acting with Mesirut Nefesh!

Nowadays, the concept of exerting effort is no longer a priority. We impose limits and boundaries as set by the Torah. But we also show Messirut Nefesh. When, for example, we install a Kosher filter on our internet connection, going against the general societal trend, or we observe the appointed fasts in the year, we ascend to the remarkable level of Mesirut Nefesh.

Every generation faces its own set of difficulties, and a Jew’s self-sacrifice is very dear to Hashem. At the time of Avraham Avinu, difficulties were very different than the ones we face today. So it is useless to make comparisons! Preserving the education of our children and continuing to hold onto our precepts and values within a hostile environment are indeed ways of serving God. Whoever perseveres will, of course, gain extraordinary merit in the eyes of Hashem!

Our generation is characterized by “selfies”, snapshots and disposable items. We have overcome many geographical and time limits. But the lack of modesty we are bombarded with on our streets, the dangers of improper internet usage, and many shameless advertisements of all types, permeate our lives and constitute genuine trials. One who stands against them is considered a great man.

Admittedly, our difficulties belong to a different category. But, as written in Pirkei Avot: "Lefum Tzara Agra": the reward is proportional to the exerted effort.

Rewarded Efforts

Concretely, how do we know if our actions in the context Mitzvot can qualify for Mesirut Nefesh? The answer is pretty simple: as soon as a man feels his will to perform a Mitzvah dwindles, but he accomplishes the mitzvah nonetheless, he is manifesting Mesirut Nefesh.

If a person feels that enrolling his/her child in a Jewish school or even an orthodox school is challenging, he/she is earning an opportunity for Mesirut Nefesh. A woman may feel a little lonely when her husband attends evening Torah classes, but as soon as she can joyfully accept this, despite her aching heart, she is practicing Mesirut Nefesh!

You may notice a blatant difference in the level of difficulty when an effort is exerted toward material gains, such as when a husband spends overtime in the office. Because in such case, the result is concrete and more immediate, such as increased compensation, luxurious vacations, etc.

For others, Mesirut Nefesh is challenged by the obligation to keep Tzniut. Wouldn’t a woman accept to dress modestly if this were the dress code required by the company advertising her dream job? More concretely, when a woman progresses in Tzniut, she certainly feels some embarrassment, to begin with, and wonders "what people will say". But if she persists and goes beyond this stage, she will demonstrate Mesirut Nefesh, no less than Avraham Avinu who was ready to sacrifice his son! Because by overcoming one’s desires, a man or woman rise to a higher spiritual level and make progress.

Certainly, the challenges are different from one person to the next. Let us improve ourselves even if the results are not concrete and palpable…. only spiritual. Our perseverance over time will reap results and gain rewards in the form of satisfaction which has no price nor equivalent in this world ...

Good luck to all of us and let’s get to work!

Sylvie Tsivia TEMSTET - © Torah-Box

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