Earning Redemption Through Self-Sacrifice
The Mishna in Masechet Sota teaches that the world will be in a state of disarray and chaos in the generation before Mashiah’s arrival. Youngsters will disrespect adults, and children will brazenly disobey parents. During that period, the Mishna writes, "On whom can we rely? On our Father in the heavens."
The conventional reading of the Mishna is that before the time of the final redemption, the state of the world will be so dire that it will be clear to us that we have only the Almighty on whom to rely, and then the redemption will come.
Additionally, however, there is a deeper interpretation, that the Mishna is coming to answer the question that many of us ask ourselves during this time of year, when we mourn the destruction and yearn for exile: how will we ever be worthy of redemption? If, as our Rabbis teach, there is a process of "Yeridat Ha’dorot" – "the decline of the generations," whereby our nation’s spiritual level consistently declines, then why do we think we can be worthy of Mashiah’s arrival, if previous generations weren’t?
To understand how the Mishna answers this question, let’s look at a different source which tells of what will happen in the future.
In Masechet Shabbat (89b), the Gemara teaches that G-d is going to approach Abraham Abinu and "complain" that his children, the Jewish People, are mired in sin. Abraham is going to reply, "They shall be killed for the glory of Your Name." G-d will then approach Yaakob Abinu, who will give the same response. Finally, G-d will approach Yishak, who, unlike the other two patriarchs, will come to our nation’s defense. He will begin by noting that the Jewish People are not only his children, but also G-d’s children, and by claiming that the nation’s sins are not as numerous as they seem – after all, people are punishable only from the age of 20, and during the time people sleep, pray, and tend to their basic needs, they aren’t sinning. And thus only a very minor percentage of a person’s life is spent sinning. Yishak will then say that he will step up and volunteer to assume responsibility for the nation’s sins. He would be able to that, he will say, "because I sacrificed my life before You." Since he was placed on the altar, ready to be sacrificed for G-d, Yishak will be in a position to assume the full weight of all of Am Yisrael’s sins.
What does this mean?
It means that even if our sins at the end of time will make us unworthy of redemption, we can still nevertheless earn forgiveness through the quality embodied by Yishak at the time he was placed on the altar – the quality of "Mesirut Nefesh" – self-sacrifice. If we do what Yishak did, committing ourselves to make great sacrifices for the Almighty, this outweighs all our guilt such that we are then indeed worthy of being redeemed.
This is the deeper meaning of the Mishna’s teaching that in the end of days, we have no one on whom to rely other than "Avinu She’ba’shamayim" – "our father in heaven." This might be referring not to G-d, but to our patriarch, Yishak. The Zohar writes that although Yishak was not actually sacrificed, nevertheless, since he was prepared to be slaughtered for the sake of G-d, his "ashes" are in the heavens, right by the Heavenly Throne. And thus Yishak is referred to by the Mishna as "our father in heaven" – our patriarch whose "ashes" are present before G-d at all times in the heaven. What will save us at the end of time, when we will be mired in sin, and we will lack the merits with which to be redeemed? The Mishna’s answer is – the ashes of Yishak. Despite our sins, we can earn our final redemption by making difficult sacrifices for Hashem, by showing our selfless devotion to Him by serving Him even when this entails great difficulty and significant sacrifices.
Fortunately, we live at a time when we are not called upon to risk our lives for the sake of Torah. We enjoy the freedom to practice our religion without fear. However, this does not mean that we cannot live with Mesirut Nefesh, that we cannot make great sacrifices for Hashem. Anytime we do something difficult for the sake of a Misva, we are accessing the precious "currency" of Mesirut Nefesh through which we earn our final redemption. It could be writing a check for charity while juggling our expenses. It could be ensuring to pray properly with a Minyan despite our busy schedules, or coming to a Torah class at night despite being tired and fatigued after a long day at work. For many people, dressing according to Halachic standards entails a great deal of sacrifice. For others, closing a business or refraining from work on Shabbat results in a significant loss of income, and thus entails great sacrifice.
This insight should encourage and motivate us to persist, to be prepared to make these and other sacrifices for the sake of Torah and Misva observance. Our generation might be on a much lower level than previous generations – but we are no less capable, and perhaps even more capable, of making sacrifices, of showing our loyalty and devotion to Hashem by following His commands and fulfilling Misvot under difficult conditions and in the face of great challenges. And if we do this, then yes, we can be worthy of our final redemption, may it arrive speedily and in our days, Amen.