Monday, February 07, 2011

too much mesirus nefesh?

The Meshech Chochma devotes his closing comments on last week’s parsha (Terumah) to the topic of the gates of Nikanor that stood in the Beis haMikdash. The gemara (Yoma 38a) tells us that all the gates of the Mikdash were gold plated except for the gates donated by Nikanor, which remained in their original bronze. The gemara offers two explanations why. The first explanation has to do with the history of those gates. Nikanor obtained the gates from Alexandria and needed to ship them back to Yerushalayim. On the return journey a typhoon threatened his ship and he was forced to toss one of the gates overboard. The sea still raged, and the sailors demanded that the other gate be tossed as well. Nikanor refused, and declared that they should throw him into the sea with the remaining gate. The storm stopped, he made it to shore, and miraculously the gate tossed overboard was discovered floating below the boat. In remembrance of Nikanor’s mesirus nefesh, the gates remain exactly the way he presented them and are forever known as Nikanor’s gates. The gemara gives a second explanation: the bronze of the gates shone like gold and there was no need for added gold plating.

I would have assumed that the gemara is simply presenting two equally plausible explanations as to why the gates were not covered with gold. Not so says the Meshech Chochma. He writes that the two views are actually in disagreement as to whether Nikanor’s self-sacrifice should be memorialized. Proof that not everyone would celebrate Nikanor’s actions comes from B”K 61, where the gemara teaches that if someone risks his life for the sake of a din Torah, e.g. a soldier travels through enemy lines to go ask a shayla to the Sanhedrin, the halacha is not said over in that person’s name. Excessive mesirus nefesh is not rewarded! According to the second answer of the gemara Nikanor should not have been so willing to jump into the sea after his gates, and his deeds should not be celebrated.

By coincidence, the Shem m’Shmuel opens this week’s parsha of Tetzaveh with a vort that casts that proof text of the Meshech Chochma in a completely different light. In Parshas Ki Tisa, Moshe Rabeinu pleads with Hashem to forgive the cheit ha’eigel or to erase his name from the Torah (we discussed this in previous years; see the Ki Tisa archives). The absence of Moshe Rabeinu’s name in our parsha is understood to be a result of Moshe’s demand.

Does it make that much of a difference if Moshe's name is explicitly mentioned or not? The Shem m'Shmuel explains that a person’s name refers to the individual’s body/soul combination. Your name – Moshe, Chaim, Sarah, Rivka – refers to the physical "you" as well as the spiritual "you" that appears in the body with that name. What happens if a person so transcends this world that they no longer have a real physical presence? Then their name no longer applies -- you can’t give a name to something that isn’t there.

By making the extraordinary demand of “M’cheini na,” by demonstrating complete selfless mesirus nefesh for the sake of Klal Yisrael, Moshe Rabeinu completely transcended his physical self – he lost his name.

When Chazal say that we do not say over halacha in the name of someone who endangers his life for the sake of Torah it is not because that person is undeserving, but to the contrary – that person has attained such great heights that to associate a physical name with their presence diminishes who they are.


  1. Rav Hutner asks it says noach lo le'odom shelo nivra but it says in bereishis that the creation of adam was tov? He says once you pass through the portal of noach lo shelo nivra then it is tov. he says that this is the basis of all avodah and is exemplified by the akedah, similar to the Shem mishmuel. Hence missing out Moshe's name at the beginning of the parshah is a fitting introduction to the avodas hacohanim

  2. >>>He says once you pass through the portal of noach lo shelo nivra

    what does that mean?