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27 Kislev 5766 - December 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Chanukah, the Miracle of Mesiras Nefesh

Compiled from the sichos of Morenu veRabbeinu HaRav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita

Part Two

Chanukah is a celebration of mesiras nefesh; an acknowledgement of what mesiras nefesh can accomplish, regardless of the odds, regardless of teva. In response to our mesiras nefesh Hashem saved us with miracles. Therefore, according to the Maharam MiRottenburg celebrations of mishteh vesimchah do not adequately express our gratitude to Hashem for the nes of Chanukah. Hallel and hodo'oh can best publicize the nes of Chanukah; the miracle of mesiras nefesh.


Chanukah is the time when we celebrate mesiras nefesh and, moreover, the fact that mesiras nefesh can produce miracles. In his preface to the Ha'amek Shailoh (Kedmas Ha'amek; 3), the Netziv writes about mesiras nefesh. From what he writes we will understand more about mesiras nefesh and how miracles come about because of it. We will also understand how to better fulfill our obligation of pirsumei nisoh during Chanukah.

Beginning with the gemora in Bava Kama (61a) the Netziv sets out to define the different expressions and limits of mesiras nefesh. The gemora quotes Dovid Hamelech as saying, based on the tradition that he received from the Beis Din of Shmuel, "[If] anyone who risks his life over divrei Torah, we do not mention his name when quoting the halacha." Surprisingly, even though a person endangered himself for the sake of Torah, we do not give him credit for his mesiras nefesh.

The Netziv next mentions the Ran who quotes the Geonim's explanation of why we do not quote the halacha in the name of such a person: because his mesiras nefesh was inappropriate. Apparently, mesiras nefesh is not praiseworthy. However, according to the Netziv, this is very difficult to understand for there are many gemoras which contradict this explanation.

The gemora Shabbos (83b) states, "Divrei Torah do not endure except with the person who kills himself over it, as it is said, `This is the Torah of a man who has died in a tent . . .' (Bamidbar 19:14)." The Netziv cautions us not to understand this gemora out of context. We should not compare the gemora Shabbos to the gemora in Tomid (32a) which refers to the eradication of gaivah; the death of the personality. Gaivah is a destructive middoh because it destroys the power of Torah to have a positive influence on the individual.

The gemora Shabbos refers to real mesiras nefesh — actual death. How? The Netziv explains that the intensity of limud is so great that, as the Netziv puts it, "The method of learning is such, that if it would be applied to some other form of knowledge he would almost die, except that the zchus [the special virtue] of Torah sustains him." Thus, this gemora is to be understood literally, "that a person puts himself in danger for the sake of his learning."

The Netziv cites further proof from Hillel, who endangered himself over divrei Torah. The gemora Yuma (35b) describes how one wintry erev Shabbos Hillel was not allowed into the beis medrash. He did not have enough money to pay the entrance fee. Undaunted, Hillel climbed to the roof and positioned himself in the skylight, a place where he could hear the discussions of Shemayah and Avtalyon. Snow began to fall, and by daybreak Hillel was discovered frozen, buried under three amos of snow! He was carried down, warmed and cared for. Eventually he was brought back to life. Furthermore, Hillel ultimately rose to the pinnacle of chachmei Yisroel.

The beginning of Pirkei deRebbe Eliezer describes how Rabbi Eliezer Hagodol was moser nefesh for divrei Torah. Without money or food, he left his family and came to Yerushalayim to learn. He sat before Rabban Yochonon ben Zakai and it was finally discovered that eight days had passed without his having tasted a morsel of food. The Netziv brings other proofs from Chazal that mesiras nefesh for divrei Torah is appropriate, even to the point of death.

If so, we are faced with an apparent contradiction between what Dovid Hamelech said in the name of the Beis Din of Shmuel — that one who risks his life over divrei Torah is not given credit for his mesiras nefesh — and the many instances when many gedolei tanoim and amoroim were moser nefesh for Torah. Their mesiras nefesh was not criticized and moreover, even though they risked their lives, they became great.

In order to answer this apparent contradiction, the Netziv begins by citing the Ramban's commentary to the posuk in parshas Acharei, ". . .observe My decrees and My laws, for by observing them a person shall live . . ." (Vayikra 18:4). The Ramban teaches us that there are four basic ways of serving Hashem Yisborach, all depending on the attitude we adopt in performing mitzvos.

There are people who serve Hashem shelo lishmoh. These people wish to receive a reward in Olom Hazeh, and in accordance with their desire they will be rewarded in Olom Hazeh with long life and wealth.

Others do mitzvos in order to be privileged to Olom Habo. They serve Hashem miyir'oh and quite appropriately, they will be spared the punishments that are reserved for the reshoim in Olom Habo.

Another way of doing mitzvos is mei'ahavoh, according to the way Hashem expects us to fulfill His mitzvos in this world; perfectly and lishmoh. Those who fulfill mitzvos this way earn good comfortable life here in this world and a perfect life is waiting for them in Olom Habo.

Finally, there are people who completely disregard Olom Hazeh. They ignore all physical concerns, acting as if they are nonphysical. Their thoughts and motivations are exclusively for the sake of their Creator. They are so completely attached to Him that they will be zoche to the great miracle of techiyas hameisim.

The Netziv learns from the Ramban two basic principles. First, "that there are two types of lishmoh which are ahavas Hashem: the first is to serve Hashem Yisborach for His Glory, without any expectation of reward. Nevertheless, the personality is not abolished; the person remains human and [still possesses] human limitations — teva enoshi. Even though this is a derech hakodeshve'ashrei hazoche loh . . . nonetheless, teva enoshi has not been overcome and the mind has not yet been zoche to be [completely] attached to HaKodosh Boruch Hu. Teva enoshi is an obstacle.

"There is, however, another type of ahavas Hashem; a bond, based on ahavas Hashem, which is so strong that at the time of deveikus there is a complete dissolution of all human consciousness. There is nothing greater than this derech chassidus."

The Netziv explains they were zoche to this ahavoh because they experienced the reality of ruchniyus. They desired ruchniyus so much that they stopped thinking about their physical existence, and this allowed them to attain Ruach Hakodesh. Nevertheless, even great, outstanding individuals who lived in the earlier generations could not maintain this madreigoh constantly. Sometimes they could be zoche to Ruach Hakodesh, and sometimes not.

The second principle the Netziv learns from the Ramban is: the direct intervention — hashgochoh — of Hashem Yisborach over Klal Yisroel is dependent upon our approach to serving Him. Consequently, it makes a difference to our life in Olom Hazeh if we serve Hashem mei'ahavoh, but still remain bound to teva enoshi, the human limitations that Hashem created us with. Hashem's Hashgochoh operates, but without a complete suspension of teva. We will not be completely subject to teva, but we will not be zoche to open miracles — especially in dangerous situations.

If we jeopardize ourselves we cannot be certain that Hashem will save us through miracles. Since we remain attached to our human nature, nature itself is allowed to rule over us — to the extent that Hashem Yisborach wishes to allow teva to function automatically. On the other hand, if we reach a madreigoh which is beyond teva enoshi, if we triumph over our human limitations, then Hashem's Hashgochoh operates regardless of all natural laws. Teva is suspended.

In summation, the Netziv explains that this is all in regard to the performance of mitzvos. In general most of us must be wary not to jeopardize our lives for the sake of a mitzvah, especially when danger prevails. Torah, the Netziv writes, is different. Limud Torah can bring a person to a madreigoh of ahavoh much greater than all other mitzvos can, and this madreigoh will nullify all self interests and concerns. It will also suspend teva.

With this, the Netziv resolves the contradictions in Chazal. If a person learns Torah lishmoh and be'ahavoh but is still protective of his personal concerns and considerations, then his learning is not able to elevate him above the restrictions of teva. Under such circumstances, if a person is moser nefesh the halochoh cannot be quoted in his name because his behavior was inappropriate for his madreigoh.

However, if the intensity of lishmoh and ahavoh is so great that one is so completely engrossed in learning that he has no other thoughts and considerations about life, then his deveikus elevates him above teva, above gashmiyus and above danger. When we, through mesiras nefesh, completely detach ourselves from Olom Hazeh, Hashem Yisborach makes Olom Hazeh subservient to us; teva will serve us and danger ceases to exist.

Hashem decrees that miracles should occur especially when mesiras nefesh obstructs teva.


In the sefer Daas Chochmoh Umussar (I, 3) Rav Yeruchom zt"l, the mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva, elaborates on the Bach's explanation of the Rav MiRottenburg (Tur; Orach Chaim, Simon 670). The hisrashlus be'avodoh was a hisrashlus of mesiras nefesh. Therefore the wars of Chanukah had to be wars of mesiras nefesh. Consequently, even though all wars are fought with mesiras nefesh — combat means risking one's life — the miraculous wars of Chanukah were different. We did not simply fight to save ourselves. We fought for something else.

The wars of Chanukah were wars fought for the avodoh and not simply wars fought for the sake of victory, conquest or security. Our battle and our mesiras nefesh were for Hashem.

Rav Yeruchom cites the gemora Brochos (20b) which quotes Rav Papa's question to Abaye: Why were earlier generations zoche to miracles whereas the later generations were not. The answer that Abaye gave, as we can now well understand, was because the earlier generations were moser nefesh for Kedushas Hashem whereas the later generations were not moser nefesh for Kedushas Hashem.

According to Rav Yeruchom, the obligation of mesiras nefesh for Kedushas Hashem applies to all details and aspects of our avodoh. "The obligation of mesiras nefesh is divided into many forms and categories, until it [culminates] with the obligation to die al Kedushas Hashem . . . [that the earlier generations] were zoche to miracles in this way; that they fulfilled all aspects of their avodoh to the point of mesiras nefesh." Nothing could interfere with their avodas Hashem. They were not lax. They let nothing stand in their way of serving Hashem.

Afterwards, Rav Yeruchom quotes the Siddur HaGra's, explanation of the phrase "uma'aritzim umakdishim" that we say during shacharis at the beginning of bircas Krias Shema. The commentary Avnei Eliyahu writes that the word arutz, "refers to the one who abandons his guf for the sake of his Master, and we too, in our avodoh for Hashem . . . This is what we say [in the Kedushoh of Musaf for Shabbos] `Na'aritzecho venakdishecho;' that through our ma'aritzim . . . [that by forsaking all physical concerns we bring honor and glory to Your Name]. Likewise, all the prophets, when they could not achieve Ruach Hakodesh, they were moser nafshom in order to achieve it by abandoning their bodies and desires."

In conclusion Rav Yeruchom sums up by saying, "We see that mesiras nefesh is relevant to every aspect of avodoh . . ."

Mesiras nefesh to do a mitzva, especially limud Torah lishmoh, be'ahavoh and belev sholeim — to put all personal concerns and considerations aside, is an all-encompassing obligation and a very high madreigoh. Kiddush Hashem will result if we take this obligation seriously, if we strive to reach this madreigoh. Kiddush Hashem is worth the effort. Every effort we can muster.

This is the highest madreigoh of avodas Hashem that the Ramban taught us about. It is the madreigoh of mesiras nefesh that suspends teva and creates miracles. It is the madreigoh of mesiras nefesh that is exemplified by the nes of Chanukah; the miracle of mesiras nefesh. This is the miracle we must publicize during Chanukah; avodas Hashem without bounds, unhampered by human limitations — avodas Hashem that triumphs over teva.

This is the pirsumei nisoh, the public proclamation of Chanukah: that when it comes to avodas Hashem there is a praiseworthy and appropriate madreigoh of mesiras nefesh which we are all able to achieve. The more mesiras nefesh, the greater the miracles. We can do it, because we are a miraculous people — alive today because of miracles, because of mesiras nefesh.

Throughout our history, the leaders of Klal Yisroel were elevated to greatness because of their mesiras nefesh. Those who were zoche to be mekadesh Hashem were able to do so because of their mesiras nefesh; the commendable madreigoh of mesiras nefesh is so great that it is lema'aloh miderech hateva. A madreigoh of mesiras nefesh which remains subject to teva cannot produce extraordinary Hashgochoh.

If we hope for Hashem's direct intervention in our lives, we must direct our lives, with mesiras nefesh, to Him. Our avodoh must be pure. It must be lema'aloh miderech hateva.

During Chanukah, because of our mesiras nefesh lema'aloh miderech hateva mesiras nefesh for avodas Hashem — we were privileged to all the miracles that we mention in Al Hanissim: the tremendous victory of the weak over the mighty, the few over the many, the tehorim over the temei'im, the tzaddikim over the reshoim, and the bnei Torah over the rebellious.

The zchus of Torah is different from all other mitzvos. Torah demands greater mesiras nefesh: "This is the derech of Torah: Eat bread with salt and drink water in measure, sleep on the ground and live a life of deprivation, and in Torah you shall toil. If you do this, you are fortunate, and it is good for you; you are fortunate in Olom Hazeh, and it is good for you in Olom Habo" (Ovos 6:4). We can be zoche to Olom Habo, as the Rambam taught us bederech hateva, but there is another method; mesiras nefesh lema'aloh miderech hateva.

With mesiras nefesh lema'aloh miderech hateva, as the Netziv taught us, one can attain Ruach Hakodesh. The Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabboh (9) bears witness before Heaven and Earth: "Whether a Jew, whether a goy, whether a man, whether a woman, whether a slave or whether a maidservant — each one, according to what they do, so will be the degree that ruach hakodesh will rest upon them." Ruach Hakodesh depends on the madreigoh of mesiras nefesh that we achieve. Mesiras nefesh for Hashem, for Torah, for avodoh. Teva will change because of it. The world will change because of it.

We must be honest with ourselves. We can not fool ourselves. Our aspirations must be pure. Hashem requires avodoh which is pure, that our limud Torah and performance of mitzvos should be lishmoh, be'ahavoh and beleiv sholem. Even then we can not take unnecessary risks, face certain dangers and openly defy teva. Nonetheless, we must learn Torah with all our might. We will be zoche to miracles, miracles for Torah. We can all become gedolei Torah.

During Chanukah, teva was thrown against us. Our enemies overwhelmed us and we responded with unrestrained mesiras nefesh. It was the proper response, it was the only response. It was what Hashem wanted and expected. Miracles followed automatically. It happened then and it can happen again.

Teva contradicts avodas Hashem. It is almost impossible to serve Hashem properly while harboring personal concerns and considerations, especially on Chanukah. This is why mishteh vesimchah, according to the Rav MiRottenburg are inadequate expressions of our gratitude to Hashem for the nes of Chanukah. Hashem gave us back the avodoh; He gave us back the Beis Hamikdosh.

Everyone saw the nes of Chanukah. The nes of Chanukah shines and illuminates the world from one generation to the next. The nes of Chanukah announces that avodas Hashem must be lema'aloh miderech hateva. Avodas Hashem requires mesiras nefesh; we cannot properly serve Hashem without it. The pleasures of gashmiyus interfere with the high madreigoh of ruchniyus we can achieve through mesiras nefesh. The choice is ours.

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