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Torah Attitude: Parashas Va'Eira: Three levels of trust
Three young Jews, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, refused to follow Nebuchadnezzar's command to bow to his statue. If the Egyptian frogs were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of G'd, the three friends reasoned that they must certainly be prepared to do the same. Tosafos explains that Nebuchadnezzar's statue was not really an idol, but was erected for his personal honour. There is such a concept as to sacrifice oneself in order to sanctify the name of G'd. The descriptions of G'd as the King Who is a Helper, Saviour and Shield correspond to three different levels of trust in G'd. "G'd will not help me; G'd is doing everything for me." The highest level of trust is when a person does something where he risks his life, and only can be saved if G'd shields him. Chanania, Mishael and Azaria let themselves be thrown into the fire to sanctify G'd's name. When our enemies attack the Jewish people they do so not just because they hate us as human beings, but even more so they hate us for being G'd's chosen nation. When the soldiers of the Israeli army engage in battle to defend their country and its citizens, they touch the highest level of sanctifying G'd's name.
Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria
The Talmud (Pesachim 53b) relates that during the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue and commanded everyone to bow down before it. In the Book of Daniel (Chapter 3) it is described how three young Jews, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, refused to follow the king's command. Nebuchadnezzar was enraged by their disobedience and threatened to throw them into a burning furnace if they would not obey. The three friends were not intimidated and proclaimed (ibid 3:17-18): "There is a G'd Who we serve. He can save us from the burning fire of the oven, and from the hands of the king. And even if He decides not to save us, you shall know we shall not serve your idol, and to your statue we will not bow down." Nebuchadnezzar proceeded with his threat, bound them with ropes and threw them into the fire. At that point, Nebuchadnezzar witnessed an open miracle, as he saw four, and not three, individuals walking around freely inside the fire, unbound and unharmed. He realized that G'd had sent an angel to free the victims and went over to the gate of the oven and said (ibid 26-28): "Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, servants of the Supreme G'd, go out and come to me." When they came out Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed: "Blessed be the G'd of Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, Who sent an angel to save His servants who put their trust in Him."
The Talmud asks, what inspired these young Jews to be ready to sacrifice themselves in order to sanctify the name of G'd? The Talmud answers that they reasoned that they should take a lesson from the frogs in Egypt. In this week's Parasha, the Torah relates that during the second of the ten plagues, Egypt was overrun with frogs. Frogs obviously have no obligation to sanctify the name of G'd. Nevertheless, the Torah describes (Shemos 7:28) how these frogs went into the ovens in the kneaded dough. Said Chanania, Mishael and Azaria, a dough goes into the oven only after the oven has been lit. If the frogs jumped into the oven at that point, they risked being burned alive. If the frogs were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of G'd, the three friends reasoned, they must certainly be prepared to do the same.
Tosafos (supra) asks why Chanania, Mishael and Azaria needed to learn a lesson from the frogs. Idol worship is one of the three prohibitions for which every Jew is obligated to let himself be killed. Tosafos answers that Nebuchadnezzar's statue was not really an idol, but was erected for his personal honour. Therefore, halachically they would have been permitted to bow down. But in order to sanctify G'd's name, they reasoned that it would be acceptable to allow themselves to risk their lives not to bow down to this image.
Sanctify G'd's name
We still need to clarify how one can learn a lesson from frogs that obviously have no free will. Our sages teach that the frogs that appeared during the plague in Egypt were not regular frogs. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (14) that the plague started with one huge frog emerging from the river, but as the Egyptians struck it, it split into swarms of frogs. The purpose of all the plagues was first and foremost to punish the Egyptians. But, at the same time, each plague was a manifestation of G'd's sovereign power over a specific part of creation and His full control over every detail. G'd brought about that some of the frogs were at risk to be burned alive to do G'd's will, to teach that there is such a concept as to sacrifice oneself in order to sanctify G'd's name. This was the lesson that Chanania, Mishael and Azaria picked up. The frogs in Egypt were the first ones mentioned in the Torah who sacrificed their lives for the honour of G'd. However, our Patriarch Abraham already sanctified G'd's name, when he let himself be thrown into the oven at Ur Kasdim, after refusing to bow to his father's idols (see Rashi Bereishis 11:28).
Helper, Saviour and Shield
In the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei we describe G'd as the King Who is a Helper, Saviour and Shield. We conclude this blessing with the words "Blessed are You G'd, the Shield of Abraham." Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, explains that these three adjectives correspond to three different levels of trust in G'd. The basic level of trust in G'd is when a person feels that he himself has to look after his affairs, but he realizes that he needs G'd's help to succeed. Such a person will merit Divine assistance in his dealings and undertakings.
G'd made it happen
However, says Rabbi Avraham, there are people who are on a higher level of trust. We can illustrate this with a story I once heard about someone who was in a difficult situation. His friend tried to comfort him and said, "Don't worry, G'd will help you." He answered back, "No He won't." The friend was shocked since he knew this person as a G'd-fearing person. He tried a second time and said, "I'm sure, G'd will help you." But again he answered, "No He won't." The friend could not believe what he heard and exclaimed: "How can you talk like that?" At this point his friend explained himself and said, "You don't understand. G'd will not help me; G'd does everything for me." This is the level of trust that Joseph exhibited in Egypt, as it says (Bereishis 39:2-3): "And G'd was with Joseph and he became a successful person … and whatever he did G'd made it succeed in his hand." It does not say that G'd helped Joseph to succeed; rather, it was G'd Who made it happen.
Shield of Abraham
There is an even higher level of trust, says Rabbi Avraham. This is when a person does something where he risks his life and only can be saved if G'd shields him. This was the level that Abraham achieved, when he let himself be thrown into the furnace in Ur Kasdim. According to the laws of nature he should have been burned alive. But G'd shielded him from the burning flames, and Abraham emerged unharmed from the fire. This is why we conclude this blessing with the words "Shield of Abraham".
When Chanania, Mishael and Azaria defied Nebuchadnezzar's command and let themselves be thrown into the fire, they had no guarantee that G'd would save them. But they were ready to give their lives to sanctify G'd's name. At this point, they reached the highest level of trust in G'd, and therefore merited G'd's protection as a Shield against the flames.
Our sages explain that when our enemies attack us, they do so, not just because they hate us as human beings, but even more for being G'd's chosen nation (see Midrash Tanchuma Matos 3). It goes even further. Rashi (Bamidbar 10:35) quotes from Sifri (84) that those who hate the Jewish people in reality hate G'd. This is clearly evident in Tehillim (83:2-7) where it first says: "G'd do not be silent … for Your enemies are in uproar and those that hate You have raised their head. Against You they plot secretly" A little later it says, "They say, 'Come let us annihilate them from nationhood, and the name of Israel shall not be remembered any more … against You they strike a covenant, the tents of Edom [Rome who are descendants of Eisav] and Yishmaelim [the Arabs who are descendants of Yishmael]."
According to this, when the youth of Israel enter the army and engage in battle to defend their brothers and sisters, they in fact defend the honour of G'd. And when they, G'd forbid, are killed, as happened recently when a terrorist drove a truck into a group of soldiers and killed four innocent youngsters, they automatically belong to the category of those who died for the sanctification of G'd's name, irrelevant of their personal level of observance. Besides, it is well known that even those soldiers who in general are not observant, go to battle with a prayer on their lips and feel a special closeness to G'd and His people that they otherwise do not experience. As such, when they risk their lives, they touch the highest level of trust in G'd, risking their lives to sanctify G'd's name.
May we all strengthen ourselves in our trust in G'd and in the performance of His commandments. And in that merit, may we soon see peace ascend upon the land of Israel as well as the whole world, with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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