As we get ready for the sweet festival of Chanukah, it behooves us to brush up on its spiritual messages. That way, it won’t become a holiday of mere gastronomic delight with latkes and sufgoniot nor will we fall into the trap of allowing Chanukah to become, chas v’shalom, an Xmas look-alike.
A common thread that runs through most of the amazing events of Chanukah is mesiras nefesh. The brave Maccabees risked their lives to defend the Holy Temple and their nation from the wicked Syrian-Greeks; the legendary Chanah and her seven sons gave up their lives rather than bow down to Antiochus HaRasha’s idol; the kohanim zealously searched for a jar of oil with the seal of the kohen gadol to light the menorah even though tamei oil could have been used bedi’eved since the entire congregation was contaminated; and the daughter of the kohen gadol protected her modesty with an incredible act of bravery, killing the wicked official who wished to take advantage of her, thus jump-starting the Jewish conquest.
Chanukah therefore is a time to take stock and ask ourselves if this element of mesiras nefesh is present in our spiritual lives. When we are tired, do we push ourselves to get up early to make minyan? Or do we succumb to temptation and say our prayers quickly at home before dashing off to work? Do we exercise self-sacrifice in pushing ourselves to attend a shiur after a hard day’s work? Or do we cave to our physical laziness and just go home and read the paper?
Is there an element of mesiras nefesh in our relationships with our children? Do we find the time – although there is never enough time – to take interest in their learning, character development, and personal happiness? Finding this time is a mitzvah of the highest priority since if we, their parents, don’t attend to these needs, who will?
Mesiras nefesh doesn’t only mean putting one’s life on the line for one’s spiritual beliefs. Rather, anytime a person pushes himself beyond his natural physical tendencies to fulfill the will of Hashem, he is following in the footsteps of the great Macabees, the heroes of Chanukah.
The Aleinu Leshabei’ach, on Parshas Vayishlach, tells a fascinating story about the venerable Rav Shach, zt”l. Rav Shach, already a very old man, had to spend some time at the hospital. One day, he informed his family that he desired to go to the floor beneath his to visit someone. Rav Shach knew this person was treating his wife poorly and wanted to talk to him about being a better husband.
The family was aghast as Rav Shach was ill and very aged. But despite their pleas that he not exert himself, Rav Shach was adamant. They then suggested that instead of escorting Rav Shach downstairs, they would ask the man to come up to Rav Shach’s room. This idea, too, he vehemently vetoed.
At this point, when reading this story, I thought to myself that Rav Shach probably was banking on the impression he would make on the man by leaving his sickbed and trekking downstairs. Perhaps the difficult visit would make the man realize the severity of the issue. But that just shows how little I understand the minds of our gedolim.
Rav Shach explained that he had tried to improve the shalom bayis of this couple many times to no avail, but he thought that perhaps if he took heroic measures to be moser nefesh – to get out of his sick bed to help save a marriage – Hashem would bless his efforts with success in the merit of his self-sacrifice.
This vignette introduces an entirely new angle to mesiras nefesh. Sometimes a spouse says, “Why should I go through so much trouble? My mate won’t appreciate it anyway?” or a parent thinks, “Why am I investing so much energy in this child. He just takes it for granted?”
Even if their suppositions are accurate, the superhuman effort might still be effective for Hashem might take note of this additional exertion and in its merit bless them with Divine assistance.
In the merit of our acts of mesiras nefesh – both small and large – may Hashem bless us with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.