Avraham Avinu was the first to discern the falsehood of idolatry, but also knew how to find in it man’s positive aspiration to connect to what is above him * The self-sacrifice of Avraham and Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah expressed their complete faith, and that is what caused the miracle of their salvation * Where there is fear that a deviation from the path of halakha will lead to the foundation of an error, the truth must be asserted, even at the cost of self-sacrifice
Noah, the industrious man of the earth, was righteous and faultless in derech eretz that preceded the Torah, yet, had not found the way to pave the path of correcting the yetzer (instinct) that leads to avodah zara (idolatry). Out of man’s limitless desire to cling to God, without the guidance of Torah, he errs in avodah zara, which gives him the illusion of attachment to unlimited forces that urge him to be self-aggrandizing, and take advantage of the world.
Some of them serve idols be’shituf (worship of God in a manner that is not purely monotheistic). In other words, they know that Hashem is the true, ultimate Supreme Being, however, they believe he has no interest in what happens in the world and by means of idolatry, they are able to gain power and rule. All the same, they are still careful not to be too self-aggrandizing, lest Hashem, the God of all Gods, gets angry and punishes them. The utterly wicked deny Hashem entirely, and are left with a completely idolatrous belief that frees all their evil instincts to act without restrictions. Such was the evil Nimrod, who based his reign of evil on an absolute pagan belief, to the point where our Sages said, “He caused the entire world to rebel against Him during the time of his reign” (Chagigah 13a).
Abraham’s Choice in Faith
When it seemed that evil was about to rule and subjugate the world, Avraham Avinu was born, and from an early age began to ponder in his heart who created the world, and to whom he should pray. He saw the sun shining and said to himself ‘that’s the one who created the world and myself’, and prayed all day to the sun. Then, in the evening, when the sun set and the moon shone, he said ‘this is the one who created the world and myself, and the stars are his ministers’, and stood all night and prayed to the moon. When day came and the moon disappeared, and the sun began to shine once more, he said ‘these have no power, there is a Lord above them’, and continued to inquire, deny all idols, realize that all forces in the world are limited, and that there must be a Creator above them. Then God, the Creator of heaven and earth and all they contain, revealed Himself to him (Genesis Rabbah, 39:1; Zohar Vol. 1, 86:1).
Strengthened in his faith, he rejected idols, and broke the statues in his father’s house. King Nimrod heard about it and decreed Abraham be brought before him, to force him to worship idols. Abraham, however, argued harshly with him. When Nimrod saw he would not agree to his opinion, he ordered him to be thrown into a fiery furnace saying, “If the God to whom you bow is the true God, let him come and save you.” Hashem saved him, and he came out unscathed from the fiery furnace (Pesachim 118a; Genesis Rabbah 38:13).
Between Abraham and Haran
Our Sages said (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) that Haran, Abraham’s brother, was present, and was asked whom he supported, Nimrod or Abraham. Haran was at odds. He replied: ‘If Abraham is saved, I am with Abraham; if Nimrod succeeds and Abraham is burned, I am with Nimrod’. When Abraham escaped from the fiery furnace, they asked Haran: Whose side are you on? He said: ‘I am with Abraham’. He was taken, and thrown into the fiery furnace, burned, and died in front of his father Terach.
From this, we learned that a believer in God must believe wholeheartedly and be willing to truly give up his life, and only then, perhaps, would a miracle be performed for him. However, someone who gives up his life on the condition that God may perform a miracle for him will not succeed. Similarly, we learn about Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, that they did not agree to bow down to the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had made. When he got angry with them, and threatened that if they did not bow down they would be burned in the fiery furnace, they replied that they believed in Hashem who they served, and He could save them; but even if He did not save them, they would nevertheless remain faithful to Him, and refused to bow down down to the statue. Nebuchadnezzar was infuriated, and commanded to intensify the fire of the furnace, ordered they be bound and thrown into it, but a miracle was performed for them and they were saved (Daniel, Chapter 3).
Indeed, there remains a memory of Haran’s devotion, for his daughter, Yissca, is Sarah Imeinu, Abraham’s wife, and his daughter Milka, was the grandmother of Rivka Imeinu. And from his son, Lot, who accompanied Abraham on his travels and then parted from him and went to Sodom, came Ruth the Moabite, the mother of the kingdom of the house of David, and Na’ama the Ammonite, the wife of King Solomon.
Avraham Avinu’s Continued Call to Faith
Years passed, during which Avraham Avinu continued to call in the name of God, and inspire people to walk in the ways of truth. He revealed that the instinct that aspired to cling to God, and mistakenly motivates man to serve avodah zara in order to reach the level of ‘son of god’, basically, is an instinct that aspires for good – reflected in the sense of man’s continuing the undertaking of God in the revelation of goodness and divine blessing in the world. God revealed Himself to Abraham, and informed him that from his descendants would emerge the People of Israel who would reveal faith and blessing to the entire world (Genesis 12: 1-3).
The more faith a person has, the more he adheres to good virtues – which are the virtues of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. And indeed, Avraham Avinu continued to ascend in the ways of God, opposing any moral injustice, and performing kindness and hospitality, even to people who were very far from the path of his faith (Genesis 18: 4, Rashi), to the point where he merited God sharing with him His leadership of the world. “God said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do? Abraham is about to become a great and mighty nation, and through him all the nations of the world will be blessed. I have given him special attention so that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep God’s way, doing charity and justice” (Genesis 18:17-19). God informed Abraham about the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cry of the wretched and poor whom they oppressed, and the punishment that awaited them. However, as a faithful student, Abraham argued that justice must be accurate – every person according to his deeds (Genesis 18:23-25). When it became clear, however, that there were not even ten righteous men in Sodom, its’ decree of destruction was sealed. However, God arranged a test for his nephew Lot. He passed the test, admitted guests into his house, guarded them, and thus, survived. In truth, from the beginning, God intended to arrange Lot’s manner of salvation, but he did not reveal it to Abraham, so that he could reveal the justice in his heart, and inherit it to his descendants for all generations.
Devotion to the Truth of Torah
Recently, I was reminded of the words of Rabbi Shlomo Luria (1510-1573), who wrote in his book ‘Yam Shel Shlomo’ that occasionally, one must have mesirut nefesh (devotion, or self-sacrifice) for the truth of the Torah, as related in the Talmud (Bava Kama 38a):
“The Sages taught: And the Roman kingdom once sent two military officials [sardeyotot] to the Sages of Israel, and ordered them in the name of the king: Teach us your Torah. The officials read the Torah, repeated it, and repeated it again, reading it for the third time. At the time of their departure, they said to the Sages: We have examined your entire Torah and it is true, except for this one matter that you state, i.e., that with regard to an ox of a Jew that gored the ox of a gentile, the owner is exempt from liability, whereas with regard to the ox of a gentile that gored the ox of a Jew, whether it was innocuous or forewarned, the owner pays the full cost of the damage…” because this constitutes a serious discrimination between a Jew and a Gentile. However, the military officials knew that if they told this to the kingdom, they would decree harsh decrees against the Jews, and perhaps kill the sages who taught it, therefore, they added: “But we will not inform this matter to the kingdom”. The Jerusalem Talmud adds that although the military officials pledged to do so God helped the Jews, and when they had already arrived to Tyre and left the border of Eretz Yisrael – they forgot this halakha, so that even if they wanted to, they could not inform against the Jews, and endanger them.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Rashal) asked: since there was a danger in saying the halakha that discriminates between a Jew and a Gentile, why did they say it? After all, sakanat nefashot (a danger to life) overrides all the mitzvot in the Torah, just as Shabbat is desecrated to save a seriously ill person? He answered that from this we learn that the obligation of mesirut nefesh for the sanctification of God also applies to the truth of the Torah, for if they changed the law and said something forbidden is permitted, or the opposite, they deny the Torah of Moshe. Consequently, they told the military officials, representatives of the Roman monarchy, the true laws of the Torah, including a halakha that discriminates between a Jew and a Gentile, about which, if the monarchy had been informed, they could have been put to death.
Does Halakha Follow Rashal?
Some of the Achronim (latter Jewish law arbiters) mentioned the words of Rashal as halakha, including the Shlah and Shiyurei Kenesset HaGedolah, and many others mentioned him in their words without stating whether they actually accepted his opinion.
Others did not accept his words (Responsa R. Akiva Yosef, O.C. 49), and in the responsa Yad Eliyahu (Lublin) 48, he wrote that only in a case of a chashash (fear) of danger should one risk and not change the words of the Torah, but in a sakana va’da’it (definite danger), one should not have mesirut nefesh, because it is not one of the transgressions which one must give up his life for.
The Question of Acceptance of Censorship
Those who disagree with Rashal and believe that one should not surrender his life for words of Torah, brought evidence from the practice of the later Sages of Israel, who, under pressure from Christian censorship, agreed to change the language of the Talmud and Rishonim, and in many places where it was written ‘goy’ (gentile), they wrote ‘oved avodah zara’ (literally, ‘a worshipper of strange gods’), and instead of “min” they wrote ‘apikoros’ (heretic), and these variations change the law.
Explanation of the Halakha
It seems possible to reconcile the words of Rashal and those who agree with him, that the obligation to give up one’s life and not change the laws of the Torah, is when there is a fear that as a result of the change, a mistake will take root for generations, because people will think that this is what the certified Sages of Israel, the representatives of Torah, instructed to do in practical circumstances. This was the case when the military officials of Rome came to learn Torah from the Sages of Israel, for if they had changed the words of the Torah, it would have been made widely known that the Sages of Israel said so, and without media and the ability to publicly deny it, a mistake could have taken root in Israel. Consequently, the Sages did not change anything from the halakha. However, when it is widely known that the change was made under pressure of the monarchy, as in the case of censorship, with no alternative, in a situation of danger it is permissible to change, because since it is known that the changes were due to censorship, the Sages determined it would be better to print the books with the changes, than not to print them at all. And although as a result, errors have sometimes occurred, since it is possible to find out what the true version is, these errors can be corrected.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.