Over the past 2,000 years in the Diaspora, Jews have had many opportunities to display their courage to stand up for Jewish beliefs. Consider Natan Sharansky – a prisoner of conscience who willingly underwent years of psychological and physical torture for the sake of being Jewish.
The pages of Jewish history are filled with thousands of Sharanskys. Whether during the Inquisition, the Crusades, the pogroms, or the myriad other persecutions and expulsions – Jews have given their lives for Judaism.
To the Western ear, "sacrificing your life for a belief" sounds like a far-too drastic action! Is there logic and reason to what our ancestors did? And where did they find the strength to lay down their lives rather than accept another religion?
Rabbi Akiva and the Shema
One of Judaism's most inspiring legends is Rabbi Akiva.
Where did they find the strength to give their lives rather than accept another religion?
Even though he only began to learn the Aleph-Bet at age 40, he applied himself with such determination that he became the greatest sage of Talmudic times.
During the first century, the Romans tried to obliterate Judaism and passed a laws prohibiting Torah study. In defience, Rabbi Akiva gathered together his disciples and taught them Torah.
The Romans arrested Rabbi Akiva and executed him by brutally tearing the skin off his body with iron forks.
As he was being tortured, Rabbi Akiva joyously recited the Shema – "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
His students exclaimed: "Rabbi, not only do we give our lives for the sake of God, but we do so in ecstasy?!"
Replied Rabbi Akiva: "All my life, I strove for the level of dedication to sanctify God's name with my very life. Now that I have the opportunity, I joyously perform it!"
Was Rabbi Akiva superhuman? How could this "opportunity" give him so much pleasure that it completely obscured the agony of death?
Know Your Pleasures
A fundamental of Judaism is that there is nothing a human being can do for God. God has no needs. Yet at the same time He gives us everything – air, water, food, sun. And He gave us the Torah as instructions for deriving maximum pleasure from this world.
In the Shema, the Jewish pledge of allegiance, we are commanded to love God B'chol Nafshecha – "with all your soul." You have to be willing to sacrifice your life rather than deny God.
If mitzvot are for our pleasure... how does this give us pleasure?!
This is the pleasure of clarity and commitment. If you can perceive something as so important that you will sacrifice your own life for it, then your life has weight and purpose and direction. Because until you know what you are willing to die for, you have not yet begun to live.
Material pleasures are necessary and nice, though they do not compare to the higher pleasures of love and meaning. Imagine you're offered 10 million dollars in exchange for one of your children. After rejecting the offer, you'd be overwhelmed with the precious value of that child! You may have always known his worth on an intellectual level, but now it becomes real to you.
When you live for a cause, it is with unparalleled power and pleasure.
Similarly, once you have found a cause so meaningful that you would forfeit your life for, when you indeed live for that cause, it is with unparalleled power and pleasure.
This is the secret of Jewish heroism. This is why so many Jews throughout history have sacrificed their lives for what they believe. Because dying for God is a higher pleasure... than living without Him.
Live For What You Are Willing To Die For
I once met a man who lived by this principle.
"Zev" lived in Israel when the British were still in power. He was a member of a Jewish underground movement which aimed to rout out the British by force.
During the four years that Zev was in the Jewish underground, he was completely cut off from his friends and family – forced to work as an itinerant laborer, with no place to call home. Every day he walked the streets, keeping a steady watch because the British were constantly stopping people and searching them. Any Jew found carrying a gun was guilty of a capital crime.
One day, the British made a sudden sweep, and Zev was arrested. The British realized he was from the Jewish underground and tortured him to obtain other names. Zev lost a leg from the maltreatment.
In 1948, when the British retreated, Zev was released. He went on to get married, build a business, and raise a large family.
"Looking back over my whole life, unquestionably the best period was being a member of the Jewish underground. True, much of it was a miserable existence. But every moment I was completely alive. I was living for something that I was willing to die for."
Life Is About Pleasure, Not Comfort
Comfort is very nice, but it is not meaningful.
An idiot is more than capable of leading a comfortable life. He doesn't suffer much, he enjoys ice cream, insults fly right over his head, he always puts on a smile... The world is b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l.
But he doesn't experience anything beyond his ice cream. He lacks the capacity to appreciate higher pleasures beyond the physical – relationships, meaning, and spirituality.
Living only for material pleasure and comfort is not really living. We also need to understand the deeper existential meaning of life. Sooner or later, every human being is faced with the cold, hard reality: "What's my life all about?"
The "Cause" in Jewish Life
Countless groups all over the world will surrender their lives for different causes.The Iranians will die, the Iraqis will die, the Afghanistanis, the North Koreans, the Kurds... the list is endless. So what's so special about the Jewish people?
Sooner or later, everyone faces the cold, hard reality: "What's it all about?"
Throughout the ages, the destiny and mission of the Jewish nation has been to teach monotheism. Jews are dying not for their own sake, but for the sake of humanity. By transmitting the message of monotheism and Love Your Neighbor, we continue to be a "Light unto the Nations" and thereby preserve the hope of world peace.
This concept was such a clear reality that it gave Jews a higher form of pleasure than anything material on Earth. Rabbi Akiva understood this. When asked to trade his life for God, he understood the idea so clearly that he could even experience joy. He knew that he was connecting with something more precious than his own life.
Despite the horrible persecutions, Jews always treasured life because we understood our power to transform the world. Yet when faced with conversion or death, we knew we had to fight or die for the sake of keeping the Jewish message alive.
Without that obstinacy and unwavering adherence to our faith, the Jewish people could never have made such an enormous impact on the ideas and values of world civilization.
Our great-grandparents understood this, and so we are here as Jews today.
That's why we teach our children to say the Shema: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
If you want to live, be real. Know what you are willing to die for. Then you are genuinely alive, and able to truly achieve the highest form of pleasure from living.
Shakespeare said, "A coward dies many a death, a brave man dies but once." All of us are going to die. The question is, do you want to live?