“You shall love Hashem with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources” (Devarim 6:5).
R’ Eliezer (Berachos 61b) says: If the Torah states “with all your soul,” why does it state “with all your resources”? And if it states “with all your resources,” why does it state “with all your soul”? R’ Eliezer answers: If a person’s body is more precious to him than his property, he must give his soul al kiddush Hashem. If his money is dearer to him than his body, he must give up his assets. R’ Akiva adds: “with all your soul” means even if someone comes to take your life.
Rav Shach asks: What does R’ Akiva add? R’ Eliezer already explained that a person is obligated to give up his life to sanctify the name of Hashem. The Shnos Eliyahu explains that according to R’ Eliezer, “with all your soul” means only that a person must endure suffering. R’ Akiva added that he must give up his life. The Vilna Gaon agrees with this interpretation, noting that a person’s assets can only mean more than his body if he is still alive. Thus, R’ Eliezer’s logic only works if “body” means suffering, not death.
According to Rav Shach, both R’ Eliezer and R’ Akiva believe “with all your soul” means giving up one’s life. R’ Akiva’s chiddush is that even in the last moments of one’s life, one is obligated to recite Krias Shema. This fundamental rule is derived from the following incident the Talmud relates:
The evil empire of Rome decreed that Jews could not study Torah. R’ Akiva defied this law, however, and gathered huge crowds of people to whom he taught Torah. For this “crime,” he was incarcerated and sentenced to death. When the Romans took him to be executed, it was time to recite Shema. So as they raked his flesh with iron combs, R’ Akiva recited Shema, accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven.
His disciples asked him, “To this extent?”
R’ Akiva replied, “All my life I was troubled by the words ‘with all your soul’ – meaning, even if G-d takes your soul. I thought to myself: When would I have the opportunity to fulfill this verse? Now that I finally have the opportunity, should I not take advantage of it?”
What the disciples were really asking him was: We understand that a person must say Shema even if he is being killed, but must he do so even while being tortured? R’ Akiva answered that a person possesses superhuman capabilities. Therefore, not only is a person capable of saying Shema while being tortured and killed; he must do so.
As the days of the Yamim Nora’im drew near, R’ Dovid Yazriel, a successful merchant and the father of a young family, was invited to a special gathering to welcome a noted rav from Chicago. The rav, a survivor of the war, brought with him sefarim that he had recently published and gave a very inspirational speech focusing on the upcoming Yamim Nora’im.
He spoke about the fiery enthusiasm possessed by the Jews in Auschwitz (where he had been an inmate) to fulfill mitzvos. He described a small structure in a field behind one of the barracks that qualified as a sukkah and said he asked a young man, Dovid, who had access to flour, to get him some.
“I asked him to get me two small pieces of bread,” said the rav, “so I could make kiddush and partake from the lechem mishnah on the first night of Sukkos. The young man agreed on the condition that I allow him to accompany me to the sukkah. I told him he was exempt from the mitzvah, but he was firm and would not back down until I acquiesced to his request.”
The rav then opened his Sefer Mekadshei Hashem to show the assembled where he had written about the young man, Dovid, who had been moser nefesh. Little did he know that Dovid, the young man who had provided him with the two pieces of bread, was sitting in the audience. R’ Dovid began to shake and said to himself: “This is the dayan from Veitzen. But he looks so different now.”
He waited with great patience until the rav finished his words and then ran up to him. “That boy in the story was me. I brought you the bread for the sukkah in the middle of the night.”
The dayan could not believe his eyes. “You are the one who sat together with me in the sukkah?” He hugged and kissed him in front of the entire assemblage. Emotions ran high for the two individuals who had survived the ravages of the war. As David HaMelech says (Tehillim 90:15), “Let us rejoice according to the days You afflicted us, the years when we saw evil.”
The rav then took one of the sefarim and inscribed it. He wrote: To my dear friend, R’ Dovid. An everlasting memento that we were both together during the Holocaust in Auschwitz, where we sat together in the sukkah, and were then left in the land of the living. Love, your dear friend, R’ Tzvi Hersh Meisels.