MESIRAS NEFESH (SELF SACRIFICE) IN THE CURRENT ERA

By Rabbi Shwab

The days of Chanuka teach us how the Jews in the days of the Chasmonaim were moser nefesh to keep certain mitzvos, and were rewarded to see great miracles, both in the war with the Greeks and with the oil.

The mesiras nefesh of the Chasmonaim is not unique in our beautiful history. When we look back at the history of our people in Galus, we find Jews at all times being moser nefesh to keep the Torah and mitzvos even in the most difficult situations.

If we take a look at the situation in the current era, we notice an interesting phenomena. It is seemingly so simple to keep a religious life today. Merely half a century ago it was difficult to get a job if one did not work on shabbos. To find a kosher butcher would have meant traveling for hours, etc.. In Russia even in recent years keeping any mitzvah was a hardship and had to be done secretly. Yet nowadays almost all Jews in the world are free to observe Torah and mitzvos as they please. One is not required to work on Shabbos. Kosher food is available practically everywhere.

If this is the case, the obvious question arises. Why is it then that we still find that so many people are going away from Yiddeshkeit, much more so than those coming back? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? When it is easy to keep the mitzvos, shouldn’t it automatically cause people to keep them rather than go away from the Torah? To understand us let us look back at the lesson of Chanuka. What is the real meaning of mesiras nefesh, (self sacrifice)? When a person want’s to know what his true potentials are, he can discover them at a time when he is being challenged, when he is striving to meet high goals and ambitions above his natural strength, not giving in under pressure. All these acts and thoughts are different forms of mesiras nefesh. Mesiras nefesh does not necessarily mean giving up one’s life. It also includes giving up of himself by going against his natural tendencies.

Having everything, does not necessarily make one feel his Judaism. On the other hand, being challenged to keep Torah and mitzvos does give a person a feeling for Yiddeshkeit. It could be any form of Mesiras nefesh, but that mesiras nefesh will be what will keep his feeling for Yiddeshkeit strong, and will give him a desire to keep Torah and mitzvos.

For example, a boy was in Yeshiva but not able to learn more than a few hours a day. One day he heard of a new Yeshiva opening in the north of Israel, in an area where no Yeshivas had yet been established. Fifteen boys from his Yeshiva decided to go there and help start the new yeshiva. This boy decided to join the group despite the fact that this meant having to learn an entire day and acting as a ben Torah, something which was way beyond his natural strength. To everyone’s surprise this boy was very successful there. This is an example of how a person becomes motivated. This boy found himself, by making the move of self sacrifice.

It is a mistake to say that today there is no mesiras nefesh. To separate oneself from the worldly pleasures (olam hazeh) is not easy. The problem is that when one is keeping the mitzvos nowadays, he is unaware of his own mesiras nefesh. He doesn’t realize that being different from the rest of the world is in itself mesiras nefesh.

The advice in today’s world for someone who wants to be strongly committed to Yiddeshkeit is to have challenges in his life. This is done by setting goals and creating ambitions. This way the person will be able to realize his own strength in his mitzvah observance and his Torah study. This does not mean that a person has to make a big noise about it. On the contrary a person should work within himself to create these inner feelings and then follow with actions.

Here are just a few examples:

A few students at Neveh who decided to get up early every morning and attend a shiur before davening. Boys who met the challenge of giving up of their own comfort and extra sleep, have been rewarded with a stronger feeling towards learning and davening.

A person can accomplish the same thing by being moser nefesh to attend a minyan where the pace of davening is slower and with more kavana. Having to wake up earlier, when he can easily wake up later and daven with a quicker minyan, is a form of self sacrifice, which will help build up his feeling for davening.

Establishing a set time for daily Torah study, with the decision not to cancel it even under extreme circumstances, accomplishes the same thing. The various tribulations which will arise and his stubbornness against them, will create a much stronger commitment to Torah study. The same is true when a person does any act of chessed which come at the expense of his own convenience or comfort.

These are just a few examples of modern day mesiras nefesh. The behavior of the Chashmonaim must teach us how to moser nefesh for Torah and mitzvos and how to apply it to our everyday experiences. If we will do so, we will have learnt well the lesson of Chanuka.

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