Among the various mitzvos taught in Parashas Nasso is Birkas Kohanim, which concludes with the all-important blessing of peace — v’yasem lecha shalom.
Since it takes at least two to fight, the Bluzhever Rebbe, zy”a, Harav Yisrael Shapira, wonders why this blessing is composed in the singular, “lecha,” and not the plural, “lachem.”
The Rebbe gives a powerful and extremely relevant explanation: “Peace” is not limited to getting along with others. Equally important is finding peace within oneself.
With this concept the Rebbe also explains an exchange that Yosef Hatzaddik had with his brothers. After they arrived together with Binyamin in Mitzrayim, he asked them, “Is your aged father of whom you spoke at peace? Is he still alive?” (Bereishis 43:27)
At first glance this seems perplexing. Shouldn’t Yosef first have asked whether his father was still alive before inquiring whether he was at peace?
The Rebbe explains that Yosef Hatzaddik, cognizant of the enormous pain that he knew his father was experiencing because of his disappearance, was inquiring whether Yaakov Avinu had succeeded in finding inner peace and tranquility — by attaining joy through the fact that Yaakov himself was still alive.
“Your servant our father is at peace,” the Shevatim replied. “He still lives.” For Yaakov Avinu, the very fact that he was still alive was sufficient reason to be at peace with himself!
It is noteworthy that this Torah thought was symbolic of the Rebbe who said it. For the Bluzhever Rav lost his first wife, his only child — his daughter — his son-in-law, grandchild, and most of his kehillah in the Holocaust. After he himself survived some of the most infamous of the death camps, he arrived in America, remarried and adopted his wife’s two sons (whose father had been killed in the war) and rebuilt a kehillah anew. He so treasured every moment of life that he refused to have cut flowers in the house, saying that he didn’t want something that would die after a few days.
A family came to Hagaon Harav Elazer Shach, zt”l, with a heartbreaking question.
Their mother was seriously ill, and the doctors said that only a very complicated operation could save her life. However, they warned that even if the surgery were successful, she would remain paralyzed and unable to care for herself.
Should they agree to the operation? Was such a life worth living? the children asked, in deep pain.
After carefully listening to all the details, Rav Shach replied by referring to a Midrash Rabbah (in Parashas Zos Habrachah) which relates that when the Ribbono shel Olam informed Moshe Rabbeinu that the time had come for him to leave this world, he pleaded that he should be allowed to remain in Olam Hazeh.
“Allow me to stay in this world like a bird that flies in the four winds and gathers its food each day, and at the end of the day returns to its nest,” Moshe Rabbeinu requested.
How is it possible that Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of all the prophets, who merited unfathomable spiritual heights, should want to live the life of a bird? What value is there in the life of a bird — a creature that doesn’t learn Torah or fulfill mitzvos?
Rav Shach explained that although Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he couldn’t fulfill mitzvos if he lived a life similar to that of a bird, he still asked for it — because he wanted to increase kvod Shamayim. By its very existence, every part of creation, even the most mundane of the living things, adds kvod Shamayim — and for Moshe Rabbeinu, this alone was sufficient reason to want to live.
Rav Shach instructed the family to go ahead with the surgery, saying every moment of life was in itself an incredible merit for a person — for through it one increases kvod Shamayim!
Years later, towards the end of his long life, Rav Shach himself became very weak. He then commented to a household member, “I thought to myself, for what purpose is Hakadosh Baruch Hu giving me life? I don’t see well, my strength is ebbing. I can no longer learn like one should; I can’t even daven properly. What does the Creator have from my staying in this world?
“After thinking about it,” Rav Schach continued, “I realized that there is one thing that even I can do — even in my weakened state — and that is to think thoughts of emunah. As long as I can do so, it is worthwhile for me to stay alive.”