Having spent much of the past few dapim discussing the halachic concept of הנאה (benefit) and the situations when it is permitted to derive benefit from a prohibited substance, today’s daf (Pesachim 25a-b) addresses a variety of cases when it is forbidden to derive הנאה, and the situations when a person must rather give up their life than perform certain actions.
Basing itself on the words of Devarim 6:5 (i.e. the Shema) where we are instructed to love God בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ (with all your heart), וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ(and with your entire soul), וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ (and with all your resources), the Gemara states that in a situation where a Jew is told that they must kill, serve an idol, or commit an immoral sexual act, and that if they do not do so they will be killed, then they are obliged to give up their life as an expression of their absolute commitment to God as expressed within the values and laws of the Torah. Furthermore, within the context of explaining why it is forbidden to kill another in order to save yourself, Rava stresses that we can never presume that our life is any more precious than another (or, as he puts it, that our blood is ‘redder’ than that of someone else), and consequently, we can never make a cold calculation why we should live and someone else should die.
Sadly, there have been many moments in Jewish history when these questions have been applied להלכה למעשה – meaning not just in theory, but in practise, and some years ago I read a responsum on this topic which brings me to tears every single time I read it. It is a responsum which powerfully expresses the notion of loving God בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ, but which also emphasizes the fact that, notwithstanding arguments to the contrary, we can never decide why one person should live and someone else should die. In terms of context, this question was asked in Auschwitz, 1944 to Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels, and it was later published in his responsa Mekadeshei HaShem, with this translation taken from Robert Kirschner’s ‘Rabbinic Responsa of the Holocaust Era’ pp. 119-121:
“I will tell here another incident from that very bitter day which is engraved upon my heart forever. Among this isolated group of boys awaiting their bitter fate was my dear student, a lovely young man outstanding in the study of Torah and piously religious by the name of Moshe Rosenberg (may God avenge his blood) from the community of Shalgo-Toryan (Hungary). He was almost twenty years old, but short of stature. Because the examination and selection were conducted in the manner described previously – anyone whose head did not touch the wood board was added to the young boys condemned to be burned – obviously it happened that a boy who was older but small in stature would be condemned together with the young boys, just as a young boy of about fourteen or fifteen years but tall in stature would escape the sentence of the young. This young man Moshe was a diligent and superior student of Torah, and when he studied at the yeshivah in Weitzen he taught the boys younger than he.
I was approached by a young man of about fifteen years from my town of Weitzen. His name was Akiva Mann, the son of my friend, the pious and illustrious Rabbi Baruch Mann (may God avenge his blood), director of teachers. This young man said to me: “Rabbi. What will happen to Moshele?” I answered him: “What can be done? Is there any way of saving him?” “Yes,” he replied, “I have in my possession enough money to ransom him.” I said to him: “Surely you know that this ransom would take place at the expense of another boy’s life, since the count must be complete. Who can take upon himself the responsibility to give permission to save him this way?” He answered me that he had a plan for this too. I asked him: “What plan? Tell me.” He replied with great fervour: “The plan is that I will go instead of him. And I accept this with great joy, to be sacrificed in his place.” When I heard this I rebuked him, telling him, “Certainly I will not permit you under any circumstances to place yourself in danger, for the law was long ago determined that your life takes precedence.” With that he left.
After a while he came back again and said to me: “Rabbi, my soul will find no rest if Moshele is burned and I who am so inferior that I do not even reach the soles of his feet should walk among the living. I have decided to do this, to go in his place, even without the rabbi’s explicit permission. Promise me only this, Rabbi: that I shall not be considered, God forbid, as one who committed suicide and has no share in the world to come.” I rebuked him again, saying, “I cannot promise you even this, since you are not required to do this thing; it is very doubtful that you are permitted to do it at all. What is the difference in heaven if he is killed or you are killed?”
To this he answered in a tearful voice: “Rabbi, certainly there is a big difference between me and Moshele, for Moshele is a young scholar diligent in his studies, and the world will have use for him, but not for someone as lowly as me. I am foolish and ignorant; I am worthless. Already I have seen with my own eyes the destruction of my family, my parents and brothers and sisters who were led away to the left side, to be burned in the crematorium while I remain alone and bereft. In what way am I better than they? What is my life now worth on the face of the earth? But if I can still have the merit to do one exalted thing like this by sacrificing my life, which obviously is worth noting, then perhaps I can save dear Moshele, whose life is worth much, whom the world needs. Why should I not gladly and eagerly do such a thing?” So this young man pleaded with me.
I was stunned. I felt that a little more of this dear boy’s tearful pleas and my heart would break. But I did not give him my consent under any circumstances, and I rebuked him a second time. Finally, after many entreaties and supplications, he left in great disappointment.
My brother, consider for a brief moment this incident, and what was said in heaven about the plea of this young boy which came from deep inside his heart in truth, simplicity, and fervour. Surely he was raised at that moment to the exalted level of the holy ones of old. May their portion be my portion, and would that our portion be with his.”