To Be Willing to Do More than Die… so That Others May Live

Vayigash 5774-An installment in the seriea
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 Love HaShem your L-rd with all your heart, with all your soul and with your entire uttermost.

-Devarim 6: 5

The second modifier of this commandment “love…with all your soul/ life” is the scriptural source for the halachah-Torah law that one must lay down their lives and die ahl kiddush HaShem– through holy martyrdom to sanctify The Name rather than transgress the prohibition of idolatry(Sanhedrin 74A). There are several other transgressions and circumstances where the halachah demands “death before transgression.” Those brave and G-d-loving souls who were equal to this ultimate test of tests have gone down in the annals of Jewish history as kedoshim-holy ones.

As all death is certain, if we were able to pick the circumstances of our deaths the noblest and wisest choice would be to die ahl kiddush HaShem confident that, in doing so, this end of our temporal lives will gain us holiness and entrée to an exalted eternity.  Rabi Akiva prayed for such a death every day and his prayers were answered (Brachos 61B). Those who die ahl kiddush HaShem occupy such an exalted position in the world-to-come that their station is inaccessible even to those who lived righteous lives but died conventional deaths. (Pesachim 50 A)

The Rambam goes so far as to say that dying ahl kiddush HaShem instantly redeems a terribly lived life. In his words “A person who’d lived a wicked life whom HaShem affords the merit of the exalted level of dying ahl kiddush HaShem, even if his sins were as great as those of Yeravam ben Nevaht and his cohorts (who’d lost their share in the world-to-come) will gain a portion in the world-to-come.” (Igerres Teiman).

The conventional translation for the last modifier of this pasuk is “Love HaShem…and with all your might.” But the Hebrew word meod literally means “very/ exceedingly.”  The word that concludes the pasuk is the second person, singular, possessive construct of this word. In this vein “and with your entire uttermost” comes close to a hyper-literal translation. Such a translation means that we are commanded to love HaShem by giving Him that which we value above all else, that which we would gladly trade our hearts and souls to obtain. The Izhbitzer teaches that there are times and circumstances that call for more than trading a fleeting life for an everlasting one. There are times and circumstances when mesiras nefesh means sacrificing our eternity, NOT sacrificing something else to get it.

His disciple Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, cites many examples of this supreme type of self-sacrifice:  After the sin of the Golden calf Moshe Rabenu offered to be erased from G-d’s book in order to save the Jewish People (Shemos 32:32).  When his son plotted to commit regicide/ patricide, King Dovid sought to do damage control by worshipping idols, forfeiting his own share in the world-to-come, so as to minimize desecrating HaShem’s Name (Sanhedrin107A).  For his love of Torah, in order to be the precedent-setting case that would bring a disputed halachah to light the mekoshesh eitzim-wood gatherer / chopper was willing to desecrate Shabbos (BeMidbar15:32-26, Tosafos Bava Basra 119B). Similarly, all those who “strolled in the Orchard”(Chagigah 14B) i.e. who studied the mystical secrets of the Torah, did so for the selfless, reckless love of Torah. They were cognizant of the risks these Torah studies posed to their bodies, sanity and even their faith. To lose ones faith is to lose the world-to-come.

“Send the boy with me” said Yehudah to his father Yisrael …”I will be responsible for him myself.  You can demand him from my hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here in your presence I will have sinned to you for all time.”

Bereishis 43:8,9

 Yehudah walked up to Yoseph and said “Please, your highness, (alternatively; my Master is within me) please let me say something to you personally…”

Bereishis 44:18

“Besides, I offered myself to my father as a guarantor for the lad. I told him ‘If I do d not bring him back to you I will have sinned to my father for all time.”

Bereishis 44:32

The sidra opens with Yehudah’s dramatic monologue. Apparently his peroration is being delivered in front of Tzafnat P’a’aneyach, the viceroy of Egypt. Superficially, pasuk 32 reads as a maudlin plea for mercy; “look at what I stand to lose unless your highness reconsiders…” But, in truth, even prior to Yoseph’s revealing his true identity, Yehudah was, in effect, speaking to Yoseph. More precisely; he was acting as his own advocate before HaShems heavenly court over the sale of Yoseph, and over Yoseph’s presumed loss to the history and kedushah-development of K’lal Yisrael. Earlier there had been a consensus among the brothers that all of their troubles in Egypt, now having culminated in Binyamin being accused of stealing Tzafnat P’a’aneyach’s divining cup, were Divine retribution for the sale of Yoseph. (Bereishis 42:21,22)

As criminal-defense attorneys will tell you, in many cases the best defense is a good offense. Yehudah’s line of attack was that he could supply K’lal Yisrael with everything that Yoseph had to offer…. and more. The second Izhbitzer, the Bais Yaakov, explains Yehudah’s words as follows: “Yoseph’s greatest spiritual strength derives from his supreme self-control.  Even when the most overpowering temptations sing Yoseph a siren-song calling for an expansion of self that would overspill these boundaries, Yoseph, personifying yesod-immovable, defined foundation, has ability to constrict himself and respect boundaries that are just not to be crossed.

“But” Yehudah argues “I possess that power as well because; bi adonee-HaShem’s theonym is within me, His holy Name is subsumed inside my own (the name Yehudah is the tetragrammaton with the letter dalet intervening between the final two letters) and His divine power to maintain boundaries is contained within me.

“Moreover I have a capacity for self-sacrifice that Yoseph lacks.  I can be moser-nefesh / neshamah-sacrifice my soul.  I posses the singular selflessness, the self-abnegation,  to forfeit not merely my temporal body but my everlasting soul so that others may live. Yoseph does not. Ki ahvd’cha ahrav es hanaaar– your slave has cosigned for the youth (Binyamin).”

Chazal teach that when Yehudah guaranteed Yaakov the safe, live return of Binyamin he did it on penalty of losing his share in the world to come (See Rashi-Bereshis 43:9). Yehudah was willing to do more than merely sacrifice a few remaining years of life on Binyamin’s behalf.  He was ready to forfeit eternity. According to the Bais Yaakov’s reading “If I do not bring him back to you I will have sinned to my father for all time” is no weepy supplication for clemency; it is a bold and defiant assertion of superiority.

Adapted from:
Mei Hashiloach V’eschanan D”H v’ahavta page 57B
Tzidkas Hatzadik 201page 78
Bais Yaakov Vayigash inyan 14 page 404 (102B)


11 comments on “To Be Willing to Do More than Die… so That Others May Live

  1. shkoyach Bob and Jesse.

    Jesse-this post was , yishtabach shemo, the 24th in the series. If you’d like printable PDF versions of this one or any previous posts or want to be added to the emailing list of same contact me at

  2. Hi- Thank you both for the feedback- Rabbi Schwartz, points well taken- and thank you for these articles- I only recently became aware of them- such a gift.

  3. I think Jesse’s apt comment is consistent with examples I’ve read of the Breslov outlook. I’m glad we’re getting real food for thought in this series of articles and in comments like his.

  4. Reb Jesse,

    First shkoyach for your beautiful, lyrical insightful comment. You sound like one of the יודעי חן yourself with a good working understanding about how the midas haYesod functions.

    But I do have a few quibbles:

    A. You take a Maimonidean approach i.e. that Olam habah is diesmbodied spirituality. The Ramban opines that Olam haBah is the posy-resurrection world and that this ultimate union of body and soul is NOT a transitional stage to something higher.

    B.It seems clear that the Bais Yaakov understood Yehudah’s monologue as a declaration of his own superioriity and the “superfluousness” of Yosef. In essence Yehudah is saying “I’ve got everything Yosef has (yesod) and more (malchus)”

    Especially here at Beyond Teshuva we should be , ahem, rooting for Yehudah the BT Extraordinaire rather than for Yosef, the Tzadik who never sinned ;-)

    Please comment early and often in the future.

  5. I think, in Yehudah’s reality, in which olam habah was a level of existence he had not yet attained (i.e., he was living in olam hazeh), a willingness to be moser nefesh, to give up his olam haba is an awesome thing. In Yosef’s reality, the reality of the tzadik yesod olam, in which there was a merging of olam hazeh and olam haba and the responsibility to maintain that connection for the sake of providing food for the world, the notion of giving up olam haba was not applicable. The tzadik’s role- uniting the physical and spiritual realms, uniting the absolute reality in which there is only Hashem with the physical reality- is necessary to maintain existence- in these parshiot, this takes the form of literally feeding the world. Yosef lived his life in that space where physical and metaphysical merge, the realm of miracles and dreams, unencumbered by the constraints of time and space, seeing Hashem everywhere, at every moment. And he drew sustenance and redemption from that world into this world. The issue is not an inability to be moser nefesh but an inapplicability. We also see this when Yosef and Yaakov meet- only Yaakov says shema- Yosef only cries. Yosef does not need to engage in an overtly spiritual act to elevate the moment. In his reality, the moment is already elevated, already spiritual, already me’eyn olam haba.

  6. I am not very much more informed on this issue than you. I just know that the Izhbitzer strand of chassidus/ kabbalah speaks to me and that it has commonalities with other traditions including those of the Vilner Gaon.

    I write and publish these posts in the hope of sharing beautiful powerful Torah with others that I hope will speak to them as well.

  7. Thanks, Rabbi!

    From my pretty uninformed vantage point, I don’t see a process to reconcile the varied and seemingly contradictory strands of the Kabbalah’s transmission that is truly analogous to the parallel process for halacha in general. Do you, or are there still competing traditions within Kabbalah?

  8. I will bl”n change soliloquy to monologue although I thought that since, per this perspective, Yehudah is not really addressing his physical audience I thought it might be appropriate.

    There is no demonstrable evidence, even of the textual variety, for any halachah l’moshe misinai either. How do we know teh ptoper technique for koshet slaughter? It is pure mesorah.

    I could be wrong but my understanding of why kabbalah (lit. “reception”) became a synonym for Che”n= chochmah nisteres-the hidden wisdom is that in contradistinction to the revealed aspect of the Torah, it relies far more heavily on mesorah v’kabbalah-transmission and reception, and less so on textual derivation through close readings and the hermeneutical rules.

    That said as I was learning these passages I was reminded of the maamar Chazal of the visage of yaakov appearing to Yoseph and helping him through the test of Potiphars wife. IIRC the “appeal” there was that “Unless you withstand this test your name will be absent on the Kohen Gadols adornment stones”. To me this is a clear reference to Yoseph losing his share in eternity.

    It’s hardly “evidence” because he used it to avoid and aveirah not as an excuse to let another person die or suffer or to allow a larger Chilul Hashem. But at least it seems to show that he valued olam habah above all else.

  9. More on my item 1. above: I’m not so clear what reason I have to accept “the Bais Yaacov’s word”. Conceivably, Yehudah’s mystic knowledge was less formidable than he thought it was, and less than Yosef’s! Conceivably, the Bais Yaacov overreached, too.

    Let me concede that I have often real problems with the Izhbitzer perspective. It could be me, or it could be that this perspective relies too much on intuition without demonstrable evidence.

  10. 1. How could Yehudah know that Yosef was incapable of the same level of sacrifice as he?

    2. A soliloquy (much misused word) involves a person speaking to himself out loud in front of others, as often happens in live theater. If the the person is addressing not himself but someone else, it’s a monologue.

  11. To head off an obvious question at the pass:Yehudah says:
    I can be moser-nefesh / neshamah-sacrifice my soul. I posses the singular selflessness, the self-abnegation, to forfeit not merely my temporal body but my everlasting soul so that others may live. Yoseph does not.

    How do I know this to be so? How dare I disparage Yoseph HaTzadik in this way? I take it on faith . Why because i have it on the Bais Yaakovs word:
    זה הכח עבודה לא
    נמצא כלל בך רק בי כידוע ליודעי חן
    “This power of serving HaShem is found in me and not to be found in you at all…as is known to those who know the hidden wisdom” (AKA Kabballah)

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