Toward the end of this week’s parshah Rashi quotes a Medrash that relates the familiar episode of when Avraham Avinu was thrown into a furnace. Rashi recounts that Avraham’s father, Terach, had reported to Nimrod that his son had broken all of his idols. Avraham was then thrown into a fire and was saved. The wording of the Medrash, however, is that Avraham had gone into the fire by himself (kesheyarad Avraham letoch kivshan ha’eish – when Avraham went into the fire, and in another place it says that Nimrod decreed that he should leireid lekivshan ha’eish – go down into the fire).
Several Acharonim were bothered by this event. First, they ask how Avraham could have thrown himself into a fire. Although avodah zarah is one of the three aveiros for which one must sacrifice his or her life instead of transgressing – in addition, when one is forced to perform any aveirah in public before 10 or more people, the person’s life must be given up instead of committing a transgression – there is nevertheless a dispute among the Rishonim as to whether one may actively kill himself or only allow himself to be killed. Second, the Acharonim ask that since bnei Noach are not commanded in Kiddush Hashem, if a ben Noach is forced to transgress he should do so and not give up his life.
Earlier in the parshah the Torah commanded Noach that although animals may now be killed humans may not be killed. The pasuk says: “v’ach es dimchem lenafshoseichem edrosh – but the blood of your souls I will seek.” Rashi brings the drasha that this is the source in the Torah that one may not kill oneself. The Das Zekeinim Miba’alei Tosafos quote an ambiguous Medrash and offer two interpretations of that Medrash that differ on this point. The Medrash makes a drasha that teaches us whether we should or should not be like Chananya Mishael and Azarya, and whether Shaul Hamelech – who killed himself before he would have been captured – acted correctly, for as the pasuk here says: ach, to exclude. One opinion says that the Medrash teaches us that one may kill oneself or others to prevent avodah zarah. The other opinion says that one may only allow himself to be killed; one may never kill to prevent avodah zarah.
Tosafos continues by saying that in his time there was a decree against the Jews (one of the crusades), and that one rabbi was slaughtering little children in an effort to prevent them from growing up in the church. Another rabbi, angered with this practice, called the first rabbi a murderer and said that if he is correct, the first rabbi will die a strange death. Indeed, the first rabbi was captured and given a strange death. In short order, the decree was abolished.
The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 18a says that when Rabbi Chanina ben Tiradyon was being killed, his students asked him to open his mouth so he would die faster. He responded that he could not do this since that would be considered as if he was killing himself. The Ritvah, on that Gemara and quoting the same Medrash, says that Rabbeinu Tam ruled that one is permitted to take his own life under such circumstances.
Returning to the original question, it is possible that Avraham did not go into the fire himself but rather allowed himself to be thrown into the fire – as seems to be the case from Rashi’s wording. Thus, in that event, the first question is not applicable. But if we understand the events as the Medrash implies, we must then explain the opinion that one may never kill oneself (in this case, that Avraham went into the fire on his own). Additionally, even if we understand that he was thrown into the fire we must still explain that if he had the status of a ben Noach, he should have transgressed and not allowed himself to be killed.
The Maharimt suggests that since Avraham Avinu, as a ben Noach, should have transgressed and not be killed, he acted incorrectly by allowing himself to be killed. He says that it is for this reason that the Medrash says that Avraham was saved in the zechus of Yaakov Avinu.