Sacrificing One's Soul for the Sake of Heaven


[Ashkenazim: Amos 9:7-15

Sefardim: Yechezkel 20:2-20

Yemenite Jews: Yechezkel 20:1-20]


By refusing to bow down to Nebuchadnezar’s idol, Chananyah, Mishael and Azariyah displayed the type of self-sacrifice that we have come to understand as Kiddush Hashem (the sanctification of Hashem's Name).  And yet, when they turned to Hashem in order to receive his acceptance, He seemingly refused to listen to them…


"In the seventh year, in the fifth month on the tenth day, some of the elders of Israel came to inquire of Hashem, and they sat before Me" (Yechezkel 20:1).  This verse is taken from the Haftarah read by Sefardic and Yemenite Jews (Ashkenazic Jews customarily read from the words of the prophet Amos).  Who were these elders who sought Hashem's advice, and what was their request?


The answers to these two questions, surprisingly, are not found in the text. This is what Hashem tells the prophet: "Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel and say to them: 'This is what Hashem, G-d, says: Have you come to inquire of Me?  As surely as I live, I will not let you inquire of Me, declares Hashem, G-d" (ibid. v. 2).  This is like an ill person coming to his doctor, only to be pushed away before he can even open his mouth.  Why are these spiritual giants, the elders of Israel, being ignored?


This strange story is explained by Professor Idra Nahar in his book "Galut Ha-Tzibur" (pp. 217-224). Professor Nahar says that in that period of exile, the Divine covenant seemed bankrupt.  The Nation of Israel was detached from the Master of the Universe, and the normal practice was NOT to inquire of Hashem.  Even more surprising still is the fact that our Sages revealed the identity of these elders as none other than Chananyah, Mishael and Azariyah, who were prepared to display self-sacrifice for the sanctification of Hashem's Name (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 7, 13).


To our great distress, after two thousand years of Exile, we have become accustomed to sanctifying Hashem's Name through self-sacrifice, but at this period it was quite new.  These three elders in fact were looking to ensure that their path was completely correct, and their sacrifice was not in vain.  They wanted to make sure that sacrificing one's life in such circumstances trumped the most precious thing in their eyes: life.  They therefore decided to turn to Yechezkel to receive Divine approval for their actions.  But Hashem refused to provide an answer.  It is human beings' role to decide their path through the Torah with the aid of their conscience, and to take responsibility for their choices and possible risks.  Although their request was denied, they still decided to display self-sacrifice.  This follows the words of Rashi: "And when one surrenders his life, he shall do so with the intention of dying, for whoever surrenders his life in anticipation of a miracle, a miracle will not occur for him.  And we find this regarding Chananyah, Mishael and Azariyah who did not surrender their lives in anticipation of a miracle" (Rashi on Vayikra 22:32).  Self-sacrifice is "love not dependent on anything" (Pirkei Avot 5:16).  Conditional love is fragile, and crumbles at the smallest test.  These three elders became the exemplars of courage and strength in displaying of self-sacrifice for Jews throughout our history.  They would not worship an idol of Nebuchadnezar, whether they were to be saved or not (Daniel 3:18). 


This behavior teaches us that despite all difficulties, it is incumbent upon us to preserve our faith in Hashem and continue to cleave to Him with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might.  Even when there are periods of Divine silence, we continue to feel His love, with the understanding that this is a world of trials.  Only when our ethical behavior will not render us any benefit, can we truly act for heaven's sake.