One or a Thousand

Which is harder, death by execution or death by a thousand cuts?

Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were pious Jews held captive in Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar offered them a choice between idol worship and death. They chose death and were thrown into a furnace. Miraculously, they survived, but the Talmud declares, “Had they been beaten, they would have caved.”1 It is much easier to die at once than to endure constant torture. That they were willing to die for G‑d doesn’t tell us that they could have withstood torture for G‑d.

There is another form of torture that isn’t physically painful, but is emotionally taxing. I refer to the steady stream of sacrifices that we may make every day for G‑d. Dying for G‑d is a one time sacrifice. Living for G‑d entails a thousand sacrifices.2 So let’s reframe our earlier question: which is harder, a one-time death or a life of a thousand sacrifices?

Isaac on the Mount

Our sages taught that at the binding of Isaac, Isaac intuited that he was to be the sacrifice. He asked his father about the ram, and Abraham replied, “G‑d chose you to be His sacrifice.” Isaac’s response was a Jewish classic. “‘If G‑d chose me, my soul belongs to Him, yet I cry for my blood.’ Thus they went, this one to slaughter and this one to be slaughtered."3

What did Isaac mean with the words, “My soul belongs to G‑d, but I cry for my blood?”

One explanation is that he was willing to die for G‑d, but he was bothered that he would no longer be able to offer his daily sacrifices. Alternatively: “My soul belongs to G‑d.” If he wants it, it is His. “But I cry for my blood.” It pains me that my blood will no longer flow, because my death will end the thousand small sacrifices I make for G‑d daily.

The Continual Effect

Isaac never dreamed that his sacrifice would be recorded for posterity and would become one of the most inspiring stories of all time. Alone on the mountaintop, he thought that his sacrifice would be purely for G‑d, and that humanity would never know. Had he realized the impact of his sacrifice, he wouldn’t have fretted. Though his death would have ended a thousand living sacrifices, it would have inspired millions of other sacrifices.

Every Jew knows that giving one’s life for G‑d is the ultimate declaration of faith. Countless Jews have died sanctifying G‑d’s name, and every one of those acts of self-sacrifice was a continuation of Isaac’s actions. Isaac’s willingness to die was not an ending by any means. It was a beginning, and continues to have an impact, even today.

When a Jew is killed in a terrorist bombing for no reason other than that he or she is Jewish, Isaac’s sacrifice comes to life. When Jews were led to the Nazi death chambers, it was Isaac’s sacrifice that they invoked. When Jews were killed in pogroms or burned at the stake by the Inquisition, they thought of Isaac. Isaac inspired countless Jews throughout time. His was not an ending. His was a true beginning.

But let’s not dwell on death. Isaac’s willingness to sacrifice inspired billions in life. Every day, in the morning prayers, we invoke Isaac’s merit as we ask G‑d to sustain us and fortify us so that we can serve Him better. Every year, in the prayers for Rosh Hashanah, we invoke the memory of Isaac as we beseech G‑d for forgiveness. Had Isaac known, on that lonely mountain, that the eyes of history were upon him, that world Jewry was watching and learning, he never would have lamented the loss of a thousand sacrifices. He would have celebrated instead the inspiration of a hundred-million sacrifices.

So why didn’t G‑d tell him what his sacrifice meant?

The Power of Innocence

To answer this, let’s return to Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, the martyrs who were prepared to die for their faith.

These heroes weren’t the only Jews in Babylon at the time. Daniel, their teacher, lived in Babylon as did the prophet Ezekiel. When word arrived that Nebuchadnezzar expected three delegates from each nation to bow to his idol, they asked Daniel what to do. Daniel demurred and directed them to Ezekiel. Ezekiel did not agree that they should give up their lives. “I have a tradition from Isaiah,” said Ezekiel. “Wait a short moment till the anger passes.”4 In other words, Ezekiel advised them to hide until the danger passed.

But they refused. “Do you want the Babylonians to say that we bowed to their idol?” If we go into hiding, they argued, and Nebuchadnezzar fails to notice our absence, everyone will assume that we bowed to the Idol. We would rather be present and publicly refuse to bow so that everyone will know that Jews don’t bow to idols.

Ezekiel, unwilling to assume responsibility for their deaths, instructed them to wait until he consulted with G‑d. Ezekiel approached G‑d and said, “Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah want to sacrifice their lives for you. Will You manifest Your name upon them for posterity?” G‑d replied that He would not.

When they heard this they proclaimed, “Whether G‑d manifests His name upon us or not, we will sacrifice our lives to sanctify His name.” As soon as they left, G‑d appeared to Ezekiel and said, “Did you think I wouldn’t manifest my name upon their sacrifice? I certainly will. But don’t breathe a word of it to them so that they can go with innocence, as it is written, ‘Those who walk with wholesomeness, walk with security.’”5,6

This is the end of the story, and it sheds light on the story of Isaac. G‑d did not inform Isaac of the profound impact his sacrifice would have, because then it wouldn’t have been a true sacrifice. When an act is done for glory or for the impact it will have, even if that impact is altruistic, it is not as real, not as innocent, not as wholesome and not as precious in G‑d’s eyes.

Isaac was meant to walk off the mountain securely. To walk away safe and sound, he would need to make a pure sacrifice—one that he thought was between him and G‑d only. A true expression of faith.7