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“I Shall Be Sanctified”

The students of Rabbi Akiva are aware that there is an obligation to give one's life in a time of religious persecution, but they are surprised at the fact that Rabbi Akiva fulfills the commandment of “Shema” even while being tortured to death.
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Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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"Keep my commandments and perform them, for I am God. Do not profane my sacred name, and I shall be sanctified amongst the Children of Israel."

This verse serves as a source for two commandments: the words "and I shall be sanctified" constitute a positive obligation to sanctify God's great name; the words "do not profane" spell a prohibition against desecrating God's name. Israel's Yom HaZikaron (Fallen Soldier's Day) is a fitting occasion for clarifying these two commandments, as much as is possible. This article is dedicated to the memory of our brothers and sisters who gave their lives in sanctification of God's name - those who did so knowingly and those who did so unknowingly, those who did so willingly and those who did so unwillingly.

The Path to the Love of God
Rambam writes (Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 3):
"We have been commanded to love the sublime God. This means that we must contemplate and seek to understand His commandments and actions until we are able to grasp Him, and to take ultimate pleasure in attaining Him. 'You must love [God your Lord]' - from the words 'You must love' one does not know how to love the Almighty. The text hence reads, 'place these words which I am commanding you today upon your heart,' for by doing this you come to know the Creator."

Studying Torah is the way to recognize God, and, it follows, to love Him.

On the other hand, Rambam writes elsewhere (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2), "This great and awesome God commands to love and fear Him, as it is written, 'You must love God your Lord,' and it is written, 'Fear God your Lord.'" What, Rambam asks, is the path that one must take in order to love and fear Him? Answer: "When one contemplates His doings and His wonderful creations and sees His immeasurable and boundless wisdom, he immediately loves, praises, glorifies, and greatly desires to know the great name, as David says, 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.'" This being so, we have come upon an additional path to arrive at the love of God.

Clearly there is no contradiction between these things. The love of God includes both of the manners by which God reveals Himself in the world - the Torah and creation itself. Contemplating these things leads to a love of God. Loving God is tantamount to knowing God. The Rambam writes:
"A person should not say, 'I fulfill the commandments of the Torah and occupy myself with its wisdom in order to receive the blessings written in the Torah and in order to merit life in the World to Come, and I distance myself from the transgressions concerning which the Torah warns us in order to be spared the curses which are written therein and in order not to be cut off from the World to Come.' It is not appropriate to serve God in this manner, for one who does this is considered a 'worshiper out of fear'...while a 'worshiper out of love' is he who occupies himself with Torah and commandments and acts with wisdom not because of anything in this world, but rather occupies himself with the truth because it is the truth. And this virtue is a very great one, and not every wise person merits it. And this is the virtue of the patriarch Abraham...and this is what He commanded us, 'You must love God your Lord with all of your heart and all of your soul."

When a person loves God on such a level, he immediately occupies himself lovingly with all of the commandments. And in order to give us a sense of just what sort of level of love we are speaking about, Rambam likens the love for God to "love for a woman with which one is forever infatuated." What's more, "the entire book of Song of Songs derives from this matter." At the end of the chapter, after having clarified the commandment to love God, Rambam writes, "It is known and clear that man's love for God is not bound to the heart of man to the point that he be forever infatuated as he ought to and to the point that he leave everything in this word except it," and this is only possible "via the knowledge man attains of Him." While it is true that the ideal level is "even greater than the lovesick," but this love is achieved through knowledge. When I know, I love; and when knowledge is lacking, so is love.

What does one have to know? It is impossible to know God Himself, for, "Man cannot see Me and live," but it is possible to know those matters which God reveals: the Torah, the Commandments, and the creation. The more that knowledge is deepened, the more the love for God grows.

The Commandment to Sanctify God's Name
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) addresses the commandment to sanctify God's name. R' Yochanan says in the name of R' Shimon ben Yehotzedek that if a person has a choice between performing a transgression and dying, he must transgress rather than die, as it is written, "You must live through them" - not die through them. To this rule, however, there are three exceptions: idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. Furthermore, it is forbidden to violate any commandment in public, even at the expense of losing one's life. This is because of the desecration of God's name, as it is written, "I shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel."

The Sages of the Talmud ask how it can be that idolatry is included in this list. After all, R' Yishmael says that even in the case of idolatry in private one must transgress rather than die!

They respond by pointing out that R' Shimon holds like R' Eliezer. On the verse "You must love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your might," Rabbi Eliezer asks: if it is written "with all of your soul" why does it need to say "with all of your might," and if it says "with all of your might," why does it need to say, "with all of your soul?" His answer: in the case of a person who loves his body more than his money, it says "with all of your soul," and in the case of person who loves his money more than his body, it says "with all of your might." And the Talmud continues, saying that in times of religious persecution, when the kingdom prohibits the fulfillment of commandments because they are God's commandments, one is obligated to sacrifice his life even for the sake of a custom. And Rambam rules like R' Eliezer, in opposition to R' Yishmael, that one must give his life even in the case of idolatry.

R' Eliezer, then, learns from the verse "You must love the Lord your God with all of your soul" that the love is so great that one must sacrifice all that he has rather than give in to idolatry. How does R' Yishmael explain the verse?

Ran writes that according to R' Yishmael, this verse teaches us that one must love God with (as opposed to giving, sacrificing) all of his heart and all of his might: with everything a person has - with his heart and with his soul. Ran proves this from the verse which refers to Isaiah, "who returned to God with all of his soul and all of his heart and all of his might," and nowhere do we find that Isaiah gave his life! Therefore, we must learn from this verse that loving God with all of one's heart means that a person uses whatever he has for the sake of God.

There is a famous anecdote in the Talmud which later authorities address in light of the above:
"Once, the Evil Kingdom decreed that Jews not involve themselves in Torah. Papus ben Yehudah came along and found R' Akiva gathering congregations in Torah. Papus asked him: Are you not afraid of the throne? He responded: this may be likened to a fox that walked along the shore of the river and saw a school of fish that was darting from one place to another. He asked them, 'Who are you fleeing from?' They answered him, saying, 'From nets which men bring upon us.' He said to them, 'Would you like to come up onto dry land and we can live together as my ancestors lived with yours?' They said to him, 'Are you the one whom they call the wisest of the animals? If in the place of our life we fear, how much more so in the place of our death!' We too, for we presently occupy ourselves with Torah, regarding which it is written, 'For it is your life and the length of your days.' Yet, if we go and neglect it, how much more so.

"They say that it was not long before they captured R' Akiva and incarcerated him, and they captured Papus and put him together [with R' Akiva], and he said to him, 'Fortunate are you R' Akiva, for you have been captured because of Torah study; woe is Papus who has been captured for frivolous matters.' Rabbi Akiva was taken out to be killed when it was time for the reading of the 'Shema,' and they were raking his body with iron rakes, and his students said to him, 'To such an extent?' He said to them, 'All my life I was upset regarding this verse ("You must love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your might"), [and I asked myself,] when will I have the opportunity to fulfill it? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?'"

In trying to understand this act, we encounter a number of difficulties. What is the meaning of R' Akiva's students' question, "To such an extent?" Certainly to such an extent! After all, from the response of R' Akiva, we learn that he interpreted the verse like R' Eliezer, i.e., "Even if he takes your soul," an if so, what is the question? It is difficult to say that they thought that there is no obligation to sacrifice one's life before performing idolatry, for if this were true, they would have had to ask this question when he was gathering congregations in public!

In order to understand this, we must refer to a principle which was expressed by one of the great Torah leaders of the previous generation, during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. When plans we being made to initiate an uprising, when the chances were near zero, R' Menahem Zamba asserted that the ordinary self-sacrifice involved in the sanctification of God's name applies when a person has a choice; sometimes a person must sacrifice his life and other times not. But when non-Jews want to kill a Jew just because he is a Jew, there is no commandment to die! The commandment is to live and to fight, and by doing this one fulfills the commandment to sanctify God's name! Only when a person is faced with the choice to live or desecrate God's name is there meaning to Jewish law's requirements regarding the sanctification of God's name, but when there is no choice, the obligation is to live as much as a person can. And even if there is no hope, it does not matter. In light of this, R' Baruch Ber, in elucidating R' Akiva's parable in the Talmud, says that a decree not to study is like a decree not to live. And when they want to destroy life, we must strive to live, strive to study.

Rabbi Akiva, then, voices a great novelty, and perhaps this is a third approach to understanding the commandment to sanctify God's name. Until now we have seen two approaches: one, sacrificing everything that a person has for God, and another, to love God with all of one's being. R' Akiva's approach is on the one hand like R' Eliezer which calls for giving one's life, while on the other hand like that of R' Yishmael: to love God with all of one's being, in every situation, "No matter how He treats you."

The students of R' Akiva are aware that there is an obligation to give one's life in a time of religious persecution, but they are surprised at the fact that R' Akiva fulfills the commandment of "Shema" even while they are taking his life. Must one, even in such a situation, strive to fulfill commandments? This, then, is R' Akiva's answer: "All my life I was upset regarding this verse." Even when one's life is being taken , one must fulfill commandments impeccably and lovingly, to be engrossed in fulfilling the commandment with all of one's being , even in the most trying of moments.

Rambam lists a number of levels in the commandment to sanctify God's name. There is a commandment to sanctify God's name which is fulfilled in the very performance of each commandment, when one fulfills it simply in order to fulfill God's will. This is a sanctification of the name of Heaven.

This is the same R' Aliva that saw a fox exit the Holy of Holies - and laughed. One who is immersed in love for God to the extent of R' Akiva, sees and knows God always. He lives the recognition that whatever happens to us is for the best. May it be God's will that we all merit seeing this, speedily in our day.

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