One of the classic Talmudic stories relates that the Romans forbade the Jews from studying Torah. Despite their decree, Rabbi Akiva continued teaching, explaining that the Jews’ relationship with the Torah is like that of a fish in water. Although there are some who try to catch a fish while it is in water, it is obvious that it cannot find safety by leaving the water, for the water is its source of life.

Ultimately, the Romans caught Rabbi Akiva and executed him, cruelly combing his skin with iron combs. All the while, Rabbi Akiva was reciting the Shema.. When his students expressed amazement at the extent of his ardor, he told them: “I interpret the commandment to ‘love G‑d with... all your soul,’ as meaning ‘Even if they take your soul.’

On one hand, this represents a very high level of dedication to G‑d. Instead of seeking either material or spiritual satisfaction and achievement, Rabbi Akiva saw the epitome of his life as self-sacrifice. On the other hand, the very fact that he was looking for self-sacrifice implies that he still had a consciousness of self.

Chassidic thought contrasts Rabbi Akiva’s self-sacrifice with that of our Patriarch Abraham, explaining that Abraham did not seek self-sacrifice. If that was required of him, he was prepared for that as well. Indeed, we see that he was thrown in a burning furnace, but that was not his goal. His goal was to spread the awareness of G‑d without thinking of his own spiritual or material welfare.

Parshas Lech Lecha

This week’s Torah reading begins with the story of our Patriarch Abraham. The Torah refers to Abraham as HaIvri, “the Hebrew.” When explaining the meaning of that term, our Sages note that it literally means “the one on the side” and explain: “Abraham was on one side and the entire world on the other.” Despite the paganism and idolatry of his surroundings, Abraham held fast to the connection with G‑d that he had established. Moreover, he was not content with merely maintaining his own private belief system. He proudly shared his awareness with others, influencing them to adopt the worship of one G‑d.

Numbers were against him, but truth was on his side and when truth is pitted against numbers, truth will always win out. For there is nothing that can stand against the rock-ribbed power of something true.

Abraham transmitted this spiritual heritage to his descendants. Every one of them has the power to stand up against a multitude when he knows that he is right. It’s not chutzpah. It’s the power of truth.

But how can we know that that we are being motivated by truth and not by simple brashness? When is our stubbornness an expression of the dedication to truth we inherited from Abraham and when is it personal bravado? Abraham was a prophet and he had Divine revelations to guide him, but what will be our barometer?

There are two answers. The obvious one is that we should follow the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. When Jewish Law requires or forbids a behavior, we should know that these lines are drawn in stone.

But there is a deeper answer. There are times when Torah Law would tell a person to give in and submit to the pressure applied to him and yet, his Jewish heart tells him not to listen. For example, despite the Communist persecution, the Rebbe Rayatz risked his life and the lives of his followers to spread Jewish education among young children in Russia. If he had asked an expert in Jewish Law if he should have done so, the expert probably would have answered him in the negative. After all, children are not obligated to keep Jewish Law and adults are. Why sacrifice the observance of those who are required to keep Jewish Law for the sake of those who are not?

But the Rebbe Rayatz did not make such a reckoning. He knew that if children were not educated in their Jewish heritage, there would be no Jewish future. Hence no matter what the risk involved, he sacrificed himself and others so that our people’s posterity would be perpetuated.

What motivates a person to take such a stance? Instead of thinking about his self and his own personal goals, he identifies with his people and puts their welfare above his own. He is not concerned with his material welfare or even his spiritual welfare, he is thinking about his people and what is best for them. When a person identifies in such a matter, his gut feelings will reflect inner truth.

Looking to the Horizon

Such identification endows a person with a singleness of purpose that lifts him above the ascents and descents that usually make up our Divine service. Most of us have days of inspiration when we are more focused on our spiritual goals and other days, when we are more focused on our material concerns. Then we turn to G‑d in teshuvah, repentance, where we return and try to reestablish the connection.

Teshuvah represents a deep bond, for to forge a connection once one has been broken, it is necessary to tap a source deeper than one’s ordinary thought and feeling. (This is necessary, since after a person sins, on his level of ordinary thought and feeling, the connection no longer exists.) He should turn inward and find a point within his soul where the connection is constant. From that inner point, he can then rebuild his conscious connection.

Nevertheless, by definition, teshuvah involves a give and take of advance and retreat. In the era of Mashiach, this will change. The Jews’ Divine service will be characterized by continuous growth, going “from strength to strength.” Our mindset will be characterized by the singleminded dedication to the level of G‑dliness mentioned above. Moreover, it will have an advantage over the commitment displayed by the righteous men of the previous generations. For they were swimming against the tide, fighting the prevailing gestalt of their era. In the era of Mashiach, by contrast, the world will be refined and will assist us in carrying out our Divine service.