You shall observe My commandments and perform them; I am HASHEM. You shall not desecrate My holy Name, rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel; I am HASHEM Who sanctifies you, Who took you out of the Land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you; I am HASHEM. (Vayikra 22:31-33)
HASHEM is repeatedly referred to and the Name of HASHEM is riddled throughout this verse which spells out the requirement to give up our lives so as not to desecrate the Name of HASHEM and in order to sanctify the Name of HASHEM. Is there any wonder why!? The Torah puts the highest premium on life. We embrace life! We love life! We go to the greatest length to preserve a life. This is one of the highest values in Torah. Almost all Mitzvos are pushed aside in order to save a life.
Yet there are certain dire circumstances where the requirement of the Torah is to forfeit one’s life. If one is called upon to kill another Jew or be killed, he should rather allow himself to be killed. If one is given an ultimatum to worship an idol or be killed, he should rather let himself be killed. If one is asked to violate a forbidden relationship or face death, he should rather accept the fate of death.
Even if one is being tested for their religious conviction, especially in front of a group of Jews, even for a minor or much less serious deed, then they are required to give up their life. Why? Isn’t life the ultimate value?!
Here’s a story I heard from Rabbi Shimshon Pincus ztl. There was a group of Jews who were part of a Nazi work force. They were given plenty of pork to keep them physically robust. One of the guards reported that there was a certain member of the group who was refusing to eat the non-kosher meat. The guards were infuriated. They approached the room where the Jews were eating and noticed one fellow in the corner who had an empty plate before him. They confronted this fellow and demanded that he eat the meat there on the table or face immediate death. The fellow was startled and confused. He was about to reach out and take a piece of meat and then suddenly he decided to refuse adamantly.
They urged him again with the risk of death. This time without hesitation he emphatically refused. They beat him mercilessly until he was left there in a bloody heap and half dead.
When the SS left the room, his comrades gathered around him. They were amazed, not by his courage, but his seeming foolishness and hypocrisy. They had picked on the wrong man who was seated in a different corner. The fellow they had beaten was not an observer of Jewish law. He had just voluntarily eaten a full plate of the forbidden food. The fellow prisoners asked the broken and beaten man, “Felix, why did you risk your life for a piece of meat you would otherwise have eaten gladly?” He looked up from the floor where he lay bleeding and said emphatically, “I never knew the value of not eating non-kosher food!”
What does this mean? If someone would offer me 10 million dollars for my house, my first instinct would be to agree, but after a moment of thinking I am left wondering what do they see in this generic piece of property and this otherwise modest home?! Then I would hold out for more. If they are offering 10 million then it must be worth much more than that! Since the SS was so zealous to take his life in order that he should eat non-kosher food, he understood that there must be something about not eating non-kosher food that is even more valuable than life itself.
Certain behaviors would undermine our purpose for being which is to represent and sanctify G-d’s name in this world. To act in opposition to this, even to remain alive, is not considered living. The verse states, “You who are attached to HASHEM are alive today!” Living means to be connected to HASHEM. The Talmud says that the wicked even while they are alive are called dead and the righteous, even in death are called alive. One who surrenders his life for HASHEM never really dies.
Nathan Hale declared before being executed, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country!” (Now, there’s a man that loves his country) Once we know what we are willing to die for then we know what we are living for.