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Parshas Lech Lecha 5758 - '97

Outline Vol. 2 #2

by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

Avraham Avinu and Mesiras Nefesh

Rashi quoted the Medrash which states that Avraham Avinu had destroyed his father's idols. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death by fire. His brother, Haran, had reasoned: "If Avraham dies by fire, I will acknowledge the idols. If, however, Avraham miraculously survives -- I too, will enter the flames." Having seen Avraham's miraculous salvation, Haran kept his promise -- and was burned alive.

School children are familiar with this story, but it raises many complex issues.

The Intention

Rashi in parshas Emor states: "One who gives his life, should do so with the intent of dying. Only one who is prepared to die can benefit from a miracle. One who gives his life in order for a miracle to be performed -- will not benefit from a miracle."

From the above Rashi, it might appear that Haran's behavior was superficial, self-serving. However, Maharil Diskin stated clearly that both the one who hopes for a miracle, and the one who does not, perform the mitzvah. The proper intention improves the quality of the mitzvah -- but either way it is fulfilled.

The Kli Chemdah has an unusual approach to the story of Avraham and Haran. According to the Kli Chemdah, Haran was the first person to suffer martyrdom for belief in the Creator. Even though Haran actually thought that he would be saved -- nonetheless, because he willingly entered the fire, he performed the Kiddush Hashem -- Sanctification of Hashem's name.

Avraham had arrived at an intellectual belief in Hashem's existence, but Haran only knew of Hashem because of his brother's words. Therefore, having seen the miracle was the only evidence he could have appreciated. His willingness to enter the flames is actually quite remarkable, and Haran should receive the credit for the first act of mesiras nefesh -- self-sacrifice.

Avraham and Yaakov

The Kli Chemdah brought backing for his view from the Medrash: "Avraham was only saved on account of Yaakov." The commentaries have expressed their difficulties with this quote. Why wasn't Avraham saved on his own account?

There are certain times and circumstances where a Jew is required to give up his life. One example: when given a choice between serving an idol or death -- a Jew should give his life rather than commit idolatry. The Kli Chemdah states that the mitzvah is to die -- not to have a miracle performed to save one's self. The Medrash was asking: Why wasn't Avraham allowed to perform the mitzvah properly? The answer: "Avraham was only saved on account of Yaakov." It was so important for Avraham to sire the Jewish Nation, that he was forcibly saved from the fire, in order that he be able to produce the Jewish progeny.

The pamphlet "Ohr Yisroel," published for Tishre this year, included a profound discourse from the Saba Mikelm (Rav Simchah Zissel), never before published. Rav Simchah also stated this explanation of the Medrash -- that Avraham should have been consumed by the flames in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem -- were it not for the necessity of bringing forth the Jewish Nation.

Kiddush Hashem and Miracles

The Shlah Hakodesh discussed at length whether a brocha should be pronounced before performing the mitzva of Kiddush Hashem (martyrdom). The question was raised: How can a brocha be said, if there is doubt whether the mitzva will occur? For example, no brocha is recited for the giving of Tzedakah -- because the poor man may refuse to accept the gift. Similarly, perhaps the person forcing the idolatrous act will have a change of heart and relent... Answered the Shlah: It makes no difference, even if the coercion ceases. Since the victim had willingly given his life, the mitzvah was performed completely. Why should the occurrence of a miracle take away the mitzvah?

This is clearly a contradiction to the words of the Kli Chemdah and Rav Simchah Zissel, who held that Avraham did not fulfill the mitzvah, because he did not die...

Chasom Sofer, though, helps to reconcile these explanations to some degree. The Sanctification of the Name can take place through the Jew's willingness to die rather than transgress, or through the occurrence of a miracle. However, when a miracle is performed, the beneficiary needs to conduct himself with great dignity. Since everyone will watch him and learn from his conduct, if he makes mistakes, he will end up causing the Profaning of the Name, instead.

Along the same lines, the Shlah quotes from the Zohar: "One who prepares himself, during the recital of the Shema, to undergo martyrdom -- it is actually regarded as if he has given his life." We see -- one need not die to perform the Kiddush Hashem. "However," the Zohar continues, "this is only true for a person who behaves in an extremely righteous manner..."

The Jewish Martyr

Elsewhere, however, the Shlah spells out his understanding of the story of Avraham in a much different way. The Ibn Ezra had asked, "Why isn't the story of Avraham's self-sacrifice mentioned clearly in the verses?" The Shlah explained, however, that a person must avoid facing situations in which he would be compelled to give his life. Rather, he should flee; if he cannot, he should give away his property to redeem himself. For this reason, the story of Avraham in the fiery furnace was not mentioned in the verses: the generations should not learn from Avraham's conduct, because he brought himself to this test, by destroying his father's idols. In future generations, such action would be forbidden -- it would be akin to suicide. Why, then, did Avraham do such a thing? It was an exceptional ruling...

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
Phone: 914-425-3565
Fax: 914-425-4296

Good Shabbos!

Text Copyright © '97 Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Project Genesis, Inc.



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