A great tzaddik (holy person) once traveled to a small town. The town’s church folk were thrilled to receive the famous man and competed for the privilege of housing him.
To their dismay the teacher chose to go the house of an unbelieving, rich man who was known for persecuting the saints. The tzaddik went to the rich man’s house to eat and then stayed there all night long. Their disappointment turned to bitter gossip. “He went there to eat the rich man’s sweet meats” claimed some.
“He has developed a taste for the high life” gossiped others. The next day, the tzaddik left the house and went on his way without saying a word.
Shortly thereafter, one of the rich man’s servants exited the house. The church folk pressured him to reveal what he knew. “My master became convinced that one of you had cheated him on a business deal. He hired a bunch of thugs to beat you up and burn down your church. They were gathered in his house, ready to go when the tzaddik arrived. For some reason, my master agreed to reason with him. They talked all night. At one point, as my master took a break, I asked the tzaddik why he had not simply sent my master a letter. He responded that if he was able to save the church, then wonderful. But if he was unable to change my master’s mind, then the tzaddik was ready to die with you.”
We think of that righteous man and shake our heads in wonder at his willingness to lay down his life for his peers and their total inability to recognize what was going on. They thought the worse of him as he was doing the best for them. But that tzaddik had learned “mesirus nefesh” (self-sacrifice) from a Great Master.
Jesus saw a man crippled by palsy and felt compassion for him. He knew the consequences of performing this miracle on a Sabbath. His enemies were just waiting for him to “slip up.” But he chose to go ahead and help the cripple. As a result, his enemies went wild with rage and began to plot his death. He went on to dedicate his whole life to doing good works, even though he knew it would end with his crucifixion.
We are too concerned with the bottom line. We care too much for our lives. We want others to like us too much. We need to meditate on Jesus’ words “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for me, you will find it.” We need to come to understand and practice the skill of mesirus nefesh.
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