There is no question that it takes great mesirus nefesh, personal sacrifice, to be Jewish. For too much of Jewish history, our people have been asked to make the ultimate sacrifice – giving up their lives for clinging to their Jewish identity. In stark contrast, we are privileged and blessed to live in a time in which, for the most part, practicing Judaism doesn’t put our lives at risk or in danger. It is arguably easier and safer to be an observant Jew today than at any other time in our history. So what is the mesirus nefesh, the personal sacrifices, being asked of our generation?
I have heard some suggest that the cost of Jewish education is our test of mesiras nefesh. There is no doubt that it takes great sacrifice for the average family to provide a Jewish education for their children. As difficult and painful as it is to forgo material needs and financial security in order to afford tuition, it seems to me that there is an even greater test of mesirus nefesh that we, the Jewish community of the 21st century confront, though we probably do not perceive it in those terms or view it in that way.
Most of us are seeking to balance living in two worlds simultaneously. We are Torah-observant Jews, guided and informed by timeless Torah values and principles. At the same time, we are also modern, westernized thinkers, influenced by the social, cultural, political, and philosophical thinking of our time. For the most part, we are able to reconcile these dual identities and resolve disparities without compromising our principles or beliefs.
However, there are times when the two value systems come in direct conflict and clash in a way that creates an incredible tension and forces us to make a choice that could very well expose who we really are and where our values truly lie, when push comes to shove. What do we do when a modern idea, notion, or value is simply incompatible with our religious beliefs? Do we abandon that particular religious belief? Do we creatively reinterpret it or even distort it in order resolve the conflict? Or are we willing to maintain our commitment to the religious position, even if it means living with the discomfort and uneasiness of being on the wrong side of what contemporary society tells us about that issue?
Take, for example, gay marriage. The faithful reader of the Torah and the loyal student of Jewish law simply cannot justify or defend homosexual behavior as being halachikly acceptable. The Torah is unequivocally opposed to the practice of homosexuality, and by extension does not recognize homosexuality as a mode of identity or a romantic relationship between two people eligible to be sanctioned, much less consecrated, through a marriage union. (Perhaps there is room for civil unions as a mechanism to qualify for benefits and rights, but that issue is beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Yet, the issue of homosexual marriage is presented today as a matter of basic civil rights and equality, foundational principles of Western, modern man. Who would ever want to argue against providing civil rights, or be seen as denying equality to any segment of the population? Homosexual marriage, therefore, seems to me a very powerful example of the outright clash between our Torah identity and our modern, Western identity. When we are asked to form an opinion or take a position on this issue, which identity and perspective will emerge dominant? Which belief will we be willing to abandon or compromise in order to resolve the outright contradiction this issue presents to us? (I am referring to the specific question of recognizing marriage, not of how the community relates to those drawn to homosexuality. Of course we need sensitivity, nuance and empathy balanced with a fidelity to halacha and Jewish morals, when addressing this issue.)
Make no mistake, it takes tremendous mesirus nefesh, incredible sacrifice, to be willing to subjugate our contemporary values, and even possibly our personal views, to standards established by the Torah and halacha and to defend and maintain the Torah position, even when it is unpopular and denigrated. Perhaps surrender and submission are our test, our generation’s trial.
Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the story of Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac in our Parsha as the quintessential example of what religious life demands of us:
“I recoil from all talk that goes round and round a single topic: that the observance of mitzvot is beneficial for digestion, for sound sleep, for family harmony, and for social position.
The religious act is fundamentally an experience of suffering. When man meets God, God demands self-sacrifice, which expresses itself in struggle with his primitive passions, in breaking his will, in accepting a transcendental “burden,” in giving up exaggerated carnal desire, in occasional withdrawal from the sweet and pleasant, in dedication to the strangely bitter, in clash with secular rule, and in his yearning for a paradoxical world that is incomprehensible to others. Offer your sacrifice! This is the fundamental command given to the man of religion. The chosen of the nation, from the moment that they revealed God, occupied themselves in a continual act of sacrifice.
God says to Avraham: “Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, etc.” That is to say, I demand of you the greatest sacrifice. I want your son who is your only son, and also the one whom you love. Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me and bring your son up for a burnt-offering, I will give you another son in place of Yitzchak. When Yitzchak will be slaughtered on the altar – you will remain alone and childless. You will not have another child. You will live your life in incomparable solitude. I want your only son who is irreplaceable. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak and remove him from your mind. All your life you will think about him. I am interested in your son whom you love and whom you will love forever. You will spend your nights awake, picking at your emotional wounds. Out of your sleep you will call for Yitzchak, and when you wake up you will find your tent desolate and forsaken. Your life will turn into a long chain of emotional suffering. And nevertheless, I demand this sacrifice.
Clearly the experience, which was rooted in dread and suffering, ended in ceaseless joy. When Avraham removed his son from the altar at the angel’s command, his suffering turned into everlasting gladness, his dread into perpetual happiness. The religious act begins with the sacrifice of one’s self, and ends with the finding of that self. But man cannot find himself without sacrificing himself prior to the finding.” (Divrei Hashkafa, pp. 254-255)
Avraham had revolutionized the world with the introduction of ethical monotheism. He spent his life preaching loving-kindness and compassion. These beliefs were fundamental to who he was and how he engaged the world. And now, God asks him to violate all that he believes and perform the cruelest act imaginable. Leave aside for the moment the many challenges in understanding this story. The bottom line, says the Rav, is clear. Avraham is confronted with the test of abandoning everything he had come to believe in order to accept God’s will. Avraham was asked to set aside his understanding and to embrace God’s in its place, as incomprehensible and incompatible as it was to his very core beliefs. Doing so would be not only uncomfortable and feel hypocritical, but it would require a supreme sacrifice.
Avraham passed his test with flying colors. Thank God, none of us have been asked to literally do what Avraham was tasked with. However, we too, are regularly asked to set aside our limited, finite understanding and perspective on a given issue and to accept the Divine will as expressed by the Torah and our rabbis. (I recognize that identifying the Divine will on any given issue is often not a simple matter.) As American culture and thinking continues to grow more “progressive” and “enlightened,” many of our traditional Torah values and positions will be increasingly portrayed as archaic and obsolete, perhaps even barbaric or cruel. Our generations test may be – do we have the strength of character and the deep faith to hold true to them nonetheless?
Why would God ever want someone to suffer as an Agunah; can’t we simply declare her unmarried? Why would He prevent a Kohen who falls in love with a divorcee or convert from marrying her? Why would God instill in some of His children a possibly genetic predisposition to homosexuality, thereby sentencing them to a life of loneliness and longing? I, for one, don’t have answers to any of these questions. But what we propose in reaction to these impossible situations in great measure reveals our true allegiance. Is it to God’s will requiring the tremendous mesirus nefesh of submission, or is it to our will and comprehension, requiring the abandonment of God’s word?
And so perhaps the mesirus nefesh question for our generation is – do we manipulate and bend Torah to fit our beliefs, or do we fashion our beliefs to conform to the Torah?
Avraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. Our ancestors were prepared to sacrifice their lives. Are we prepared to sacrifice our need to make everything modern compatible with Torah? I hope and pray that we, like those before us, are up to our challenge.