The Stuff of Life
Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16-18 )
Martyrdom is demanded of a person only rarely. He must allow himself to be killed rather than cause a chillul Hashem, a desecration of the holy Name. He must also be prepared to die rather than commit one of the three cardinal sins ¾ idolatry, illicit relations and bloodshed. Otherwise, he is allowed to violate any prohibition in the Torah in order to save his life.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) derives these guidelines from the verse, “And you shall keep My decrees and My laws, that a person shall do them, and he shall live by them, I am God.” The Torah wants the Jew to “vechai bahem, live by them,” not to die by them. If you have to eat chametz on Pesach in order to survive, do so. If you have to desecrate the Sabbath to save your life, do so. If you have to eat nonkosher food to avoid starvation, do so. Your first priority is to “live by them,” not to die.
There is a general misconception about this passage in the Talmud. At a cursory glance, the Talmud seems to be saying that life is a higher value than the fulfillment of the mitzvos. But what does this mean? How does one define the life that is so precious even though it is devoid of mitzvos? What makes it so precious? Watching the sunrise on the beach? Reading a good book? Sipping a cup of heavenly coffee?
This is not what the Talmud is saying. Onkelos translates the words vechai bahem as “he will live forever [in the World to Come].” Rashi also follows that translation, pointing out that “it cannot mean in this world, because he will eventually die.”
Accordingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein in Igros Moshe sees the Talmud as telling us something totally different. On the contrary, the most precious thing in life is mitzvos because we “live by them”; they bring us to the World to Come, to eternal life. Therefore, in case of danger it is better to violate a prohibition of the Torah if by doing so one will survive to fulfill many more mitzvos for years to come. The Talmud tells us (Yoma 85b), “Desecrate Shabbos for him once in order that he should observe Shabbos many times.” For the Jewish people, mitzvos are the stuff of life.
The Gerrer Rebbe offers a chassidishe interpretation of this phrase, “vechai bahem, that you shall live by them.” What do we call “living by them”?
In the yeshivah world, one often hears the question, “Where do you get your chius?” Literally, this means, “Where do you get your life?” The question touches on a profound issue. Where do you find the spark of life? What brightens up your day when you get out of bed in the morning? What excites you? What gives you the zest for life? For some people, it is the prospect of learning Torah. For others, it is the opportunity to do some good work in Jewish outreach. And for yet others, it is the prospect of a good steak or a good game of baseball.
This, says the Gerrer Rebbe, is what the Torah is telling us. A person should “live by the mitzvos.” His chius, his zest for life, should derive from the prospect of doing mitzvos. These should be the entire raison d’être for his existence in this fleeting material world.
Before you turn around, your life in this world is over, even if you were blessed with a ripe old age. It is all a dream, an illusion. You cannot look for the meaning of life in this world, only in the eternal World of Truth, and only mitzvos will bring you there. Only mitzvos will give you an everlasting, meaningful life.
You should never seek to accumulate money for its own sake. What will it get you? A little extra pleasure in this world? Is that life? Is that where you are expecting to find your chius? You should work as much as you have to in order to provide a livelihood for your family, but you should seek your chius from doing mitzvos and chessed with your wife and children, your family, your community, all the Jewish people. You should seek your chius, your lifeforce, in the Torah. You should seek your chius in building a close relationship with the Master of the Universe. That is the key to eternal life.