Just Say 'No!'
How can we convey to our children that life is intended to be more than a search for pleasure? The answer is provided by the sifrei mussar: demonstrate mesiras nefesh. It has been said, “If there is nothing worth dying for, there is nothing worth living for.” Mesiras nefesh does not mean only martyrdom. Mesiras nefesyh means making a sacrifice for what you know is right.
There is a remarkable Midrash (Eicha Rabba) that at the time of the chruban, the patriarchs pleaded to Hashem for mercy. Avraham Avinu said, “Ribono shel olam! How I had longed for a child, and age 100, You graciously gave me a son. When you told me to bring him as an olah offering, I did not hesitate to do Your will. Do my children not deserve a better fate? Yitzhak Avinu said, ‘I was 37 years old. I could resisted being brought as an olah, but I was ready to give up my life for You. Don’t my children deserve something better?’ Yaacov Avinu and Moshe Rabeinu made similar pleas, but Hashem did not acknowledge them.
Then Rachel Imeinu said, “Ribono shel olam! You know how much I loved Yaacov. I knew that my father was a scoundrel and could substitute my sister for me. I gave Yaacov a secret code whereby he could detect the ruse, but when I realized that if he used the code he would expose the ruse and Leah would be publicly humiliated, I gave Leah the secret code. I was willing to surrender the man I loved to my sister in order to prevent a few minutes of humiliation. Don’t I deserve better than to see my children suffer?” Hashem responded, “In your merit, Rachel, your children will one day be returned to their land.”
Think of it! The enormous sacrifices of Avraham and Yitzhak were not adequate merits. Rachel did not yield her life, but her willingness to give up Yaacov for all her life in order to spare her sister a few moments of humiliation was a greater mesiras nefesh than the martyrdom of Avraham and Yitzhak. One need not die in mesiras nefesh. If one has a strong desire for something and suppresses it because it is halachically wrong or ethically appropriate, that constitutes mesiras nefesh. Mesiras nefesh is thus the antithesis of “If it feels good, do it,” and of naval birshus haTorah.
We have abundant opportunities to perform mesiras nefesh. The chapter on zerizus in Mesilas Yesharim is an essay on mesiras nefesh. Ramchal points out that the Torah prohibition of lo tikom, to refrain from taking revenge, is something one can logically expect of the heavenly angels, not of mere mortals. “Taking revenge is the sweetest feeling a person can have, yet the Torah forbids it.” This is mesirqs nefesh at its best. Inasmuch as the urge to “get back at someone” occurs even in grade-school children, this is an excellent opportunity for parents to teach young children mesiras nefesh. But of course, parents must model it in their own lives.
If one has a juicy piece of gossip and would love to tell it to a friend, but refrains from doing so because that is lashon hara, that is mesiras nefesh. We may refuse to eat something a friend offers us because we are unsure of its kashrus, but have our children heard us say to someone, “I’d love to hear what you have to say, but I can’t listen to you because I think it may be lashan hara?”
It is very tempting to converse during the reading of the Torah or the repetition of the amidah. To refrain from doing so is mesiras nefesh. To avoid telling a lie when telling the truth is a disadvantage is mesiras nefesh. To avoid an anger outburst is mesiras nefesh. There are many opportunities in daily life to exercise mesiras nefesh. When we do so, we demonstrate to our children that we are willing to forgo pleasure for the sake of doing right, and this is a teaching which our children can accept, not in the form of a lecture, but by actual life.
Children are able to have mesiras nefesh. In one shul, through an error in scheduling, two boys were to have their bar-mitzva on the same Shabbos, and both had invested much effort in learning the haftorah. The son of the more prominent member willingly yielded to the other boy. This was an opportunity to praise him for his mesiras nefesh.
Kibud av voem, respecting one’s parents, is a great mitzva, and there are abundant opportunities to set aside one’s own desires in favor of kibud av voem. You may be engaged in doing something, when your father or mother asks you to do an errand. Although you are annoyed by this interruption, you do what your parent has requested. This is mesiras nefesh.