Mesirat Nefesh for the Sake of God
by Rabbi Avi Billet
A very experienced rabbi once told me that for the Neilah period, the last chapter of Yom Kippur – the final prayer, the setting sun, the last grab at the straw of life for the coming year – it is important to focus the attention of the mitpal’lim (those who are praying) in a direction that may help answer the questions we might not necessarily speak about on the holy day: were my prayers answered? Will my commitments to change work? Will G-d accept my teshuvah? How will I know what I need to do to actualize the things I’ve prayed for and personally committed to do in this coming year?
I heard this idea from Rabbi Avner Kavas, a renowned speaker in Israel.
There is a gemara which was made famous by Yossi Green, who put it to music, and Avraham Fried, who recorded it and sung it around the world. On Brachot 7a, the Talmud records “Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha (the High Priest) said, ‘Once when I entered the holy of holies to burn the k’toret (on Yom Kippur), I saw Akasriel – G-d sitting on His lofty throne. He said to me, 'Yishmael, my son. Bless me!' I said to him, 'May it be Your will that your mercy should overcome Your anger, and your mercy should overcome all of your attributes as you practice mercy towards your children…' And he responded to me with [a nod of] His head.'”
Can you imagine G-d saying to a human being – “Bless Me?” Is there anyone who would not want to give birth to a child who, one day, will be asked by G-d to bless Him? How does one merit to be blessed with such a child?
There are midrashic accounts of Rabbi Yishmael’s parents – Otzar Midrashim (Niddah, page 400), and in the Or Zarua (Volume One, Alpha Beta, on letters zayin and chet). Elisha, Yishmael’s father, was very careful to go to the mikvah regularly. Originally, however, every child born to Elisha and his wife did not survive. His wife asked him, “Why do all these other righteous people have children, and we do not even have one?” He answered, “Because they and their wives are very careful about going to the mikvah – they observe it with their lives on the line.” She said, “We too will observe this as if our lives depend on it.” They accepted upon themselves to do so.
Let us take a pause and remember that the mikvahs in those days were not like the heated, filtered, beautiful mikvahs we have today. They were either murky and gross, or it was a natural spring, river or lake that was very cold. In some cases in history, particularly in Europe, Jewish women would have to break the ice in order to do their requisite monthly dunking. Men who went daily had similar trials, except in the morning rather than at night.
Returning to our tale: Once when Elisha's wife went to the mikvah, after she emerged she encountered a pig - a ritually impure animal. So she went again. Upon emerging, she encountered a metzora (a person afflicted with the spiritual ailment called "tzara'at"), so she went again. 40 (it may be an exaggeration, but nonetheless a large number of) times she went through this ritual until G-d told the angel Gavriel to descend and stand before this righteous woman who had been through enough; she will become pregnant tonight with a boy who will become Yishmael Kohen Gadol.
When she emerged, instead of an impure encounter, she came across the angel Gavriel, who appeared to her in an image that looked like her husband - a welcome change from all the impure encounters she had experienced. After she returned home, she became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a son who was blessed with the true countenance of the angel Gavriel - like every mother's dream to have her son look like an angel.
In the laws of Tevillah (dunking in the mikvah), a woman who sees something which is tameh (ritually impure) does not need to go back to the mikvah after she has immersed. Given the state of the mikvah in those days, each return to the mikvah was almost like putting her life in the hands of G-d.
But she went back, perhaps 40 times, to do the mitzvah right.
This is what we call mesirat nefesh — being able to do something right, even though it is difficult. To have the fortitude to say, “I am going to sacrifice myself for the sake of G-d.”
In the case of Elisha and his wife, they merited a son who was asked by G-d to bless Him.
If we commit to literally be mosair nefesh, to sacrifice of ourselves in body and spirit, for the sake of G-d, what kinds of merits will we have coming to us? Maybe the answer to this question is the answer to our original questions: Were my prayers answered? Will my commitments to change work? Will G-d accept my teshuvah? How will I know what I need to do to actualize the things I’ve prayed for and personally committed to do in this coming year?
If we are willing to sacrifice our hearts and souls for G-d, we’ll be moving in the proper direction. How do we achieve that?
The answer to this question can only be provided by each individual about his or her self.
Let us contemplate this thought during Neilah, to inspire ourselves for the coming year.