Mesirus Nefesh-The secret behind Jewish self-sacrifice for G-d and its contrast to the self-sacrifice of adherents of other religions and idealisms
(Likkutei Sichos Vol. 20 3rd Sicha)
In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayeira, we learn of G-d’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar, and of Abraham’s ensuing direct obedience to G-d which almost led to Isaac’s death and was only stopped at the last moment. This famous episode which became known as “Akeidas Yitzchak” is viewed in Judaism as the greatest challenge from G-d to have ever been successfully passed by a Jew, and is mentioned in prayer so it stand for our merit for all generations. In this talk the Rebbe delves into various aspects of this great test, including the difference between it and all the previous tests that Hashem challenged Avraham with. As well, the Rebbe delves into the difference between the self-sacrifice that Avraham was willing to have for G-d versus the self-sacrifice that we find even Gentiles have for their religions and idealisms that they believe in, not to mention the self-sacrifice that Jews have had throughout the generations. After a thorough analysis of the subject, we discover the uniqueness and specialty of the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, and how specifically it serves as the father of all self-sacrifice that the Jewish people had throughout all their future generation.
Explorations of the Sicha:
1. What is so significant and unique about Akeidas Yitzchak? Were there not many Jews who gave of their lives for the sake of G-d throughout the generations?
2. Why would Avraham’s failure of the test of Akeidas Yitzchak jeopardize the value of the challenges of all the other tests that he successfully passed?
3. What is the difference between a Gentile who dies for the sake of his ideologies versus the Mesirus Nefesh of a Jew?
4. What special inheritance did Abraham leave his descendants in the field of self-sacrifice and dedication the G-d?
1. The 9 challenges that G-d gave Abraham versus the final 10th challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak:
The Mishnah states that G-d challenged Avraham on 10 different occasions to test his loyalty to Him. The last of these 10 challenges was the instruction to Avraham that he sacrifice his son Isaac. Now, the Talmud states that when G-d asked Abraham to sacrifice his son He told him, “Please take your son,” meaning to say “I have challenged you with many tests and you have successfully passed all of them. Now, please be successful also in this challenge in order so people don’t say that the earlier challenges were meaningless.” What remains to be understood is as follows: Why should the value of the successful passing of the previous challenges be compromised if he does not pass the final challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak? While we can accept that if he would fail the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak it would show that he does not contain the level of self-sacrifice demanded to successfully pass that challenge, but how would this prove in any which way that all of his previous challenges did not contain any self-sacrifice. This especially applies in face of the fact that Akeidas Yitzchak was the most difficult challenge of all, and hence at most it will only show that he hasn’t reached this level of self-sacrifice.
2. A test that challenges one’s nature expresses true self-sacrifice:
A possible explanation to the above is that this last test of Akeidas Yitzchak challenged an aspect of Avram’s nature that was never challenged yet before. You see, Avraham was a great believer in monotheism and G-d who he was greatly in love with, and all of his previous challenges simply gave him an opportunity to express the extent of this love. Avraham is rooted in the divine attribute of Chesed, and hence his love is a mere manifestation of his instincts and nature. This great love that he had for G-d which motivated him to pass all the challenges was not something that Avraham developed on his own but was something that he was naturally born with, and hence it could be argued that it was only natural that he would overcome the challenges. However, by the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, it required that Avraham reveal his aspect of severity, Gevura, for the sake of killing his own son. It would be specifically this challenge that would prove that the success of all the previous challenges were due to his own effort, and not simply due to his nature.
Nonetheless, this answer does not suffice, as even if in truth he would’ve failed this last challenge it would not have completely canceled all the other challenges that he faced but simply diminish in their value.
3. What exactly is the uniqueness of Akeidas Yitzchak?
There is a general question that is raised regarding the great claim to fame that the episode of Akeidas Yitzchak holds in Jewish history. The portion of the Akeida is read each day prior to the morning prayers to stand in our merit and encourage us in self-sacrifice, and the episode of the Akeida is mentioned on the holiest of days such as Rosh Hashanah to beseech G-d to write us in for a good year. Now, one may rightfully ask as to why this episode of the Akeida is viewed with such great magnitude, more than all the other unfortunate episodes in Jewish history in which people have given up their lives and the lives of their children for the sake of G-d. After all, in the end of the day, Avraham did not even slaughter his son, and even though he was ready to do so, it was due to a direct command from G-d. This is in contrast to many other sages throughout Jewish history who gave up their life for the sake of G-d without even being instructed to do so by Him. Such as for example, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues who died a torturous death in the sanctity of G-d’s name even without being commanded to do so. Furthermore, even if one were to argue that it is more difficult to give up the life of your child then it is to give up your own life, unfortunately in Jewish history we find this is well, that people gave up the lives of their children for the sake of the sanctity of G-d’s name. To start with the famous example brought in the Talmud of Chana and her seven sons, in which each one of her seven sons were killed due to their refusal to bow down to an idol. In fact, Chana herself boasted about this after it happened by saying, “You Avraham sacrificed one child on the altar while I sacrificed seven.” The same occurred during the times of the Crusades, and other times of religious persecution, in which there were Jews, fathers and mothers and Rebbes, slaughtered their own children to prevent them from being captured by the Christian enemy and converted to Christianity. Thus, the question is rightfully asked as to why Avraham’s case receives the claim to fame?
4. Avraham could have argued his way out of the commandment if he had desired:
The Sefer Ikkarim explains that the novelty of Akeidas Yitzchak is that Avraham did not attempt to argue his way out of the command, even though in truth he had a rightful claim that G-d had promised him to establish his descendants from his son Isaac. Furthermore, after careful study of the wording of the command one sees that G-d had not actually commanded him to do it, but simply requested it as a favor. Accordingly, we can understand the greatness of this event in contrast of the other events of self-sacrifice throughout Jewish history, as in the other events we were actually commanded to give up our lives and not desecrate G-d’s name, while here Avraham volunteered to go forth with G-d’s suggestion despite an obligation.
The pushback against this explanation: The problem with the above explanation is that aside for the fact that it is difficult to explain that when G-d asks for something it is a mere suggestion, in addition, we in fact to find throughout Jewish history we find people who gave up their lives in cases where they were not obligated to, and on the contrary should have looked for a Halachic allowance to not give up their lives.
5. Avraham opened the channels for Jewish self-sacrifice:
In Chassidus it is explained that Avraham was the first Jew to sacrifice himself to G-d, it being that the start of every new matter comes with difficulty, therefore he is considered the father of the concept of Mesirus Nefesh, onto which until today we sing his praise. Once Avraham our forefather revolutionized this concept of giving up one’s life for the sake of G-d, it became easy for his descendants to perform this as well. In other words, Avraham is the one who drew down the spiritual courage necessary for self-sacrifice, and he inherited this to all of his descendants.
6. What was wrong with the self-sacrifice of Or Kasdim?
The above explanation instigates the question as to why it was necessary for specifically the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak to be successfully passed for Avraham to open the channel of self-sacrifice. After all, didn’t he already give up his life for the sake of G-d when he agreed to be thrown into the furnace at Or Kasdim, and refused to bow down to idolatry. Why was it necessary to have a further challenge on the same topic in order to open the channel self-sacrifice for all generations to come? Furthermore, when you analyze the difference between the challenge of Or Kasdim and that of Akeidas Yitzchak, it seems that that of Or Kasdim is of greater value, as Avraham did this on his own without being commanded, as opposed to Akeidas Yitzchak in which G-d personally instructed him to do so. If so, it is even more puzzling that the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak would be necessary to open the channels of self-sacrifice when this was already accomplished on a larger scale.
7. The novelty of Jewish self-sacrifice:
To answer the above question, and understand the novelty of specifically the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak versus that of all the other challenges including Or Kasdim, we must first explain the general concept of self-sacrifice, and why it is considered such a great and altruistic act at all. The concept of self-sacrifice and giving up one’s life for his ideals we find also amongst the Gentile nations, and there indeed were many righteous Gentiles who gave up their lives for the sake of G-d and for the sake of their religion and beliefs. [For example, take Socrates the philosopher who gave up his life for the sake of monotheism. Likewise, there are many Christians and Muslims who give up their life for the sake of their religion.] What then is unique about Jewish self-sacrifice, and why does it need a special channel opening and inheritance from Avraham if it exists also by the Gentiles?
A self-sacrifice with a gain and incentive: The explanation is as follows: The mere concept of someone giving up his life for an ideal that he believes in is not that perplexing at all, and is not something that is worthy of such great praise, as that may simply be his way of stubbornly proving his point, and profiting from the sanctification of his ideals. In other words, it is very possible that one gives up his life for a broader gain that he believes that either he [i.e. his family or in the afterlife] or the world will receive due to it. In such a case, his giving up of his life is a mere investment decision in order to reap the benefits of its future profits. He measures the pros versus the cons of giving up his life and decides to give it up being that the pros overweigh the cons. Such a death is not considered true self-sacrifice at all, as in truth the person is doing it for personal gain, or gain of his idealism’s acceptance. Other reasons for why people give up their lives can be even less altruistic and be due to reasons of evil, as expressed with Islamic suicide bombers, and those who commit murder suicides, who have so much hate for the other that they’re willing to die just for the sake of inflicting pain to the other. Likewise, some people risk their lives because they can not face the reality of losing to another, such as during battle or war, or being ashamed such as to be caught for crime by the police. Such people are not expressing self-sacrifice but the epitome of ego, as they’re willing to put their own bodies in danger just for the sake of their pride not getting harmed, or for the sake of revenge. What then is true self-sacrifice?
True self-sacrifice is without any profit or gain: True self-sacrifice is expressed specifically when one has nothing to gain and nothing to profit from his death, neither emotionally, philosophically, or monetarily; no gain at all. His ideals that he stood for will not be publicized or sanctified as a result, and he has nothing to gain by dying. Now, why would someone allow himself to be put to death for no reason or gain or benefit neither for him or his cause? This is precisely the secret of Jewish self-sacrifice, where a Jew, even of the simplest of nature, gives up his life for G-d. This can only be due to an utter obedience and nullification to one’s creator, to the point that he is willing to die on behalf of his creator even without profit or benefit taking place as a result. This is the ultimate type of Bittul of oneself. This type of self-sacrifice only exists by the Jewish people. To give up your life for an ideal can be the result of a logical consequence of measuring profit versus loss, which is something relevant even the Gentiles, and hence even Gentiles have historically given up their lives for ideals. However, to give up your life for nothing simply because you cannot fathom being detached from G-d in any way is specifically the Jews Mesirus Nefesh. This is precisely the type of Mesirus Nefesh that Avraham drew down to the world with his self-sacrifice of the Akeida. Based on the above we can understand the difference between the self-sacrifice that was expressed by Avraham when he successfully passed the previous challenges, such as Or Kasdim, versus that of the Akeida.
8. By Or Kasdim Avraham had everything to gain by dying-By the Akeida, he had everything to lose:
The difference between the self-sacrifice that Avraham expressed in his willingness to jump into the fire by Or Kasdim, versus his willingness to sacrifice his son, is regarding the incentive and results that Avraham would’ve received from his actions.
The self-sacrifice of Or Kasdim: Avraham’s entire life’s mission which touched the very core of the soul was to spread monotheism to the entire world and eradicate the practice of idolatry. By Or Kasdim he received a prime opportunity to prove his point to the entire world and sanctify G-d’s name on a level of intensity and fame that he probably would not be able to accomplish his entire life, and therefore of course he was willing to give up his life for G-d, as his primary mission would be accomplished as a result of this form of self-sacrifice. This form of self-sacrifice, although indeed being altruistic to some level being that it is done for the sake of an idealism, is nonetheless a classical form of self-sacrifice that even Gentiles can and do perform.
The self-sacrifice of the Akeida: If Avraham would’ve gone through with the slaughtering of his son by the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, the results would have been the exact opposite. The entire world would’ve said that Avraham, the father of monotheism, has lost his mind, in the killing of his only son whom he proclaimed would be his successor and the successor of his movement. This would’ve caused a tremendous desecration of G-d’s name and severely compromise the belief in monotheism by Avraham’s adherents. This is aside from the fact that according to some Mefarshim, there was no one even present at the time of Akeidas Yitzchak, and even if somehow the episode could bring some kind of benefit for Avraham’s cause of spreading monotheism [which as we explained above in truth would cause the opposite], there would be no one to know that it took place. The only reason that Avraham agreed to sacrifice his son is because G-d wanted it to be done and asked him to do it, without there being any ulterior motive or benefit in him doing so. This was the great novelty of the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, that a Jew is willing to give up his life for G-d even when it is contrary to any logic or understanding and reaps no benefit, and simply does so because it is the will of G-d. It is this type of self-sacrifice that emphasizes complete nullification to one’s creator. Thus, it ends up that Avraham was the first to open the channels for this type of self-sacrifice, for a Jew to give up his life for the sake of G-d even if by doing so he will not further or advance any matter that can bring a personal benefit to him, or the causes that he believes in.
9. Understanding why failing the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak would’ve compromised the success of passing the previous challenges:
Based on all the above, we can now understand why the Talmud states that if Avraham would not pass this challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, then all the other previous challenges may be viewed as meaningless. The reason for this is because if Avraham would’ve failed the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, then people would say that he overcame his previous challenges for ulterior motives, and benefits and gains that he saw would come as a result, and not due to true self-sacrifice. However, if you would successfully pass the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, then it would retroactively reveal that although in his previous challenges there may have been an element of benefit and gain, in truth he did so out of utter self-sacrifice and nullification to G-d.
10. The inheritance that all the Jewish people received from Avraham in our potential of self-sacrifice:
By Avraham successfully passing the challenge of Akeidas Yitzchak, and expressing the utter self-sacrifice to G-d that is beyond reason, he inherited this ability also to his descendants, the Jewish people, for them to be able to give up their lives for the sanctity of G-d’s name, even when there is no benefit in play. Furthermore, even when a Jew gives up his life for what externally seems to be some benefit or motive, in truth he is giving up his life due to his total self-sacrifice to G-d that he inherited from his forefather Avraham. Furthermore, every single Jew contains the potential of this nullification and self-sacrifice to G-d throughout his day, even if it does not express itself in actuality in being asked to physically give up his life. It is for this reason that it is ruled in Halacha that each morning it is proper to recite the paragraph of the Akeida, in order to remind us of the self-sacrifice that we inherited, so we use
 Pirkeiy Avos 5:3
 Targum Yerushalmi Vayeira 22:1; Pirkei Derebbe Eliezer 31; Mefarshim on Pirkeiy Avos 5:
 Sanhedrin 89b; Tanchuma Parshas Vayeira 22; Rashi Vayeira 22:2
 See Aruch Laneir, Likkutei Sichos ibid footnote 5
 See Sefer Haammrim Kuntreisim 2:642; Likkutei Sichos 2:378
 Abudarham on 22:2; Ikaram Mamar 3:36; Igeres Kodesh 21; Sefer Hamamarim 5678 p. 283; 5688; Beis Rebbe chapter 24; Peri Ha’aretz Vayeira
 Gittin 57b; Eicha Raba 1:50; Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim Remez 873; Igeres Hashemad of Rambam
 See for example Beis Yosef Y.D. 157 in Bedek Habayis; Sefer Mainz Anonnymous
 Ikaram Mamar 3:36
 See Bereishis Raba 56:10
 SeeDrashos Haran Derush Hashishi p. 105
 See Michaber and Tur Y.D. 157:1
 See Sefer Hamamrim 5688 and 5678; Likkutei Sichos 10 p. 46
 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates
 Even Ezra 22:1
 Admur Kama 1:10