Self-Sacrifice on All Levels

Rabbi David Sutton February 1, 2018

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When one is moser nefesh (putting one’s life at risk) for a mitzvah, Hashem repays the person. The following story illustrates how one man’s sacrifice for Shabbos rewarded him and resulted in a kiddush Hashem.


A talmid chacham in Eretz Yisrael did not have much money, and his son took seriously ill on a Shabbos. He desperately needed a doctor, and there happened to be an excellent doctor, a secular Jew, who lived down the block. The doctor agreed to treat the boy, but demanded that he be given a check immediately.


“I don’t trust religious Jews,” said the doctor. “I will tend to your son only if you give me a 500-shekel check right now.”


Halachah clearly establishes that human life overrides Torah law, and so the father wrote a check in an unusual manner, and handed it to the doctor. The doctor looked at the check, and noticed that it was for 1,000 shekels.


“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” the doctor said. “I asked for 500 shekels, not 1,000. Looking around your apartment it does not appear as though you can afford to pay me extra.”


The talmid chacham explained that to write a 500-shekel check, he would have to write three words — chamesh meos shekel (500 shekel), whereas giving 1,000 shekels required writing just two words — elef shekel (1000 shekel). In order to minimize the Shabbos desecration, he was prepared to double the amount. The doctor was astounded. He had never seen anything like this in his life, a poor person paying an extra 500 shekels in order to write ONE less word on Shabbos. He set down 500 shekels change, and brought the check home to show it to his wife.




After Shabbos, the doctor returned to the talmid chacham’s home and said, “I was so moved by what you did today, I decided I wanted to learn more about Shabbos and Judaism.” The Rabbi began studying with him. The doctor ultimately became a baal teshuvah.


The next story displays the mesirus nefesh of a gadol. We can learn from this on our level what self-sacrifice for Shabbos means.


The following was told by Rabbi Shlomo Brevda, who heard it from Rebbetzin Greineman, who was the Steipler Rebbetzin’s sister; both women were sisters of the Chazon Ish. Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, was about to become engaged to the Chazon Ish’s sister. But before the shidduch was finalized, he felt that it was important that he share with her an incident that had taken place while he was in Siberia.


The forced labor in Siberia was backbreaking. In addition to the bitter cold and blinding snow, the actual labor required pure brute force. The Steipler Gaon had been inducted into the army against his will, yet, regardless of the terrible conditions and the impossible work, he knew in his heart that only one task mattered, serving the Master of the World.


One of the first obstacles the Steipler had to overcome was the army system itself. The army dictated that everyone must work seven days a week. To the Steipler that was absolutely unacceptable. He approached the officer in charge, a brutal, anti-Semitic, and evil person, and asked that he be granted permission not to work every Shabbos. The official paused for a moment and answered that he would grant the request on one condition: that the Steipler would first have to prove himself to be a valiant warrior.


The Steipler would have to “run the gauntlet.“ The officer quickly ordered 100 soldiers to form two facing rows of fifty each and arm themselves with sticks. The Steipler watched the soldiers move into formation and heard these words of the evil officer, “Kanievsky, here is the deal. If you are able to make it through these lines and survive the blows from my officers, then you may rest on your Sabbath. However, if you don’t…” His voice trailed off, and he laughed. Clearly, he was enjoying his little game. Usually, the victim did not reach the end of the gauntlet alive, from the blows, kicks, punches, and rifle butts of the vicious soldiers.


The Steipler did not flinch. Instead, he whispered a heartfelt prayer to Hashem to help him survive this difficult test. He knew that he could give up and the game would be over. But if he admitted defeat, then his attempt to be released from working on Shabbos would be over as well. The guards motioned to their commanding officer that they were ready, and the officer and his comrades stood back to watch the fun. The Steipler approached the path and murmured one last plea to Hashem. He held his hand over his head and ran between the rows of guards. With all their might they began to pummel him and beat him incessantly.



The pain was unbearable, but the Steipler persisted and kept trudging forward. Blood trickled into his eyes but he continued to move forward. Step by step he inched ahead until finally, he reached the end of the treacherous path. He collapsed at the finish line. With Hashem’s compassion, the Steipler came out of the ordeal alive. No one offered to help the Steipler get up from the ground, but it did not matter because he had survived. As he lay there, a smile formed on his lips. He had won. He was in incredible pain, but the Shabbos was still holy, and he would be able to observe it.


The commanding officer grudgingly informed the Steipler that he would not have to work on Saturday. From the repeated blows to his ears, the Steipler suffered an 80% loss of his hearing for life. When the Steipler finished recounting his tale to his kallah, he explained that this was his level of mesirus nefesh. “The blows hurt, but I was happy to have the privilege to suffer for the sake of the holy Shabbos.” He then asked her if she was prepared to join him in his continuous sacrifice for the Torah. She relayed that indeed she was and then they became chassan and kallah.


Incidentally, many years later, when the Steipler Gaon was older, a young Rabbi asked the Steipler what was the best day in his life. The Steipler answered, “The day I ‘ran the gauntlet’ in the Russian Army. I imagined that with each blow, I was offering my life for the sanctity of the Shabbos. Nothing is sweeter than mesirus nefesh, dedicating one’s whole life to the fulfillment of Hashem’s commandments.”


The next story was told by Rabbi Yechiel Spero. It displays mesirus nefesh that another Jew should not transgress Shabbos.


A woman in the ghetto had stolen some potatoes. She had done this for one reason: her children were starving to death. She was caught by the ghetto police and was being taken to court for her “crime.” In that world of unprecedented violence and chaos, this desperate mother had, in their eyes, committed a heinous crime. The contrast was ludicrous. Yet, she was being charged with robbery and was going to be punished for her actions, unless she could prove her innocence.


After the judge read the charges, he asked the devoted mother if she had anything to say for herself. Instead of pleading with the judge and telling him that she was trying to do what any mother would, she stood there in silence.


Something did not seem right. She could have easily cried to the judge, and she might have been given a relatively lighter punishment. But now, she was given a much harsher punishment. No one understood her stony silence. Immediately after receiving her sentence, her friends and relatives ran to her side. They could not comprehend why she had not defended herself. In fact, she had not said one word!


The selfless and dedicated mother stepped out of the makeshift courtroom and headed back toward her children. She held her head high and explained, “I noticed that there was a Jewish woman stenographer who had been recording every word that was said in the courtroom. It is Leil Shabbos. Had I said anything, this woman would have been mechallel Shabbos because of me. I did not want that to happen, so I just kept quiet.”



Reprinted from Living Shabbos by Rabbi David Sutton with permission from Artscroll Mesorah.