The Mitzvah of Being Alive

U’shemartem es chukosai v’es mishpatai asher ya’aseh osam ha’adam v’chai bahem ani Hashem (18:5)

In Parashas Acharei Mos, we are commanded to guard Hashem’s decrees and laws and live through them. From the Torah’s emphasis on observing the commandments and living, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) derives that the mitzvos were given to us in order to live, not to die. Therefore, if keeping one of the commandments will result in a potential danger to a person’s life, he should disregard the law for the purpose of pikuach nefesh — in order to preserve his life, with the exception of sins involving murder, idolatry or forbidden relationships.

Although the idea of doing something that is normally forbidden for the purpose of pikuach nefesh is a situation in which many of us hope not to find ourselves, our Gedolim viewed it differently, as simply one of the 613 mitzvos that a person may perform in life, one which should be done with the same joy and concentration as any other mitzvah.

At the end of the life of the Brisker Rav, zt”l, he was very weak and ill, and he understood that the primary purpose of his life at that point was to perform constantly the mitzvah of v’chai bahem — keeping oneself alive — and when he was counting and measuring out his various medications, he did so with the same precision and focus that he applied to every other mitzvah.

This perspective is not surprising, as he recounted that when his father, Harav Chaim Soloveitchik, zt”l, was required to eat on a fast day for reasons of health, he made sure to eat in full view of others for two reasons. First, there were sick people in Brisk who may have felt uncomfortable about eating on a fast day and hesitated to do so, thereby jeopardizing their lives, but when they saw the respected Rav of the town eating publicly due to his physical state without any compunctions, they would do so as well.

Second, if he insisted on eating privately where nobody could see him, he would be demonstrating that he felt that what he was doing was on some level less than ideal. Such an attitude is incorrect, as the reason that we fast is in order to fulfill Hashem’s will, and the same G-d Who instructed us not to eat on certain days also commanded us to eat on those days if fasting would endanger our lives because we are sick.

The Brisker Rav added that just as everybody understands that circumcising an eight-day-old baby boy on Shabbos is not only permitted but required, and nobody would ever insist on doing so in private due to the fact that drawing blood is otherwise prohibited on Shabbos, so too, nobody should feel ashamed when performing Hashem’s will by eating on a fast day for the sake of his health.

In one of his lectures, Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, z”l, recounted that at the end of his father’s life, he was wheelchair-bound and no longer able to spend his time engaged in Torah study and mitzvah performance as he had done for so many decades. In order to strengthen and encourage him and to prevent him from falling into a state of depression, Rav Tauber approached his father and told him that Hashem loved him and was taking good care of him. His surprised father asked for an explanation.

Rav Tauber responded by asking his father to identify a Biblical mitzvah that he had never successfully performed lishmah (for its own sake), to which his confused father replied that he had always striven his utmost to observe every mitzvah with pure motivations. Rav Tauber continued and suggested that there was one important mitzvah that his father had always performed for ulterior motives: the mitzvah to live. He explained that his father loved mitzvos so much that he had always lived in order to study Torah, to pray, to give tzedakah and to do acts of chessed, but he had never once lived only for the purpose of living and had never once breathed for the sole purpose of v’chai bahem — to give Hashem a living Jew.

However, because Hashem loved the elder Rav Tauber so much and saw his tremendous dedication to mitzvos, He wanted to give him the opportunity to finally fulfill the mitzvah of living for no other reason than because Hashem gave him a mitzvah to live. In order to do so, Hashem had no choice but to place him in a wheelchair and take away his ability to learn Torah and do chessed, so that he would be able for the first time in his life to perform the mitzvah of living lishmah. Rav Tauber added that this perspective was tremendously consoling and uplifting to his father, who repeated it often to those who came to visit him, and can be used to strengthen ourselves should we ever find ourselves in a situation in which we are unable perform mitzvos in the manner to which we are accustomed.

Q: In what case would a person be permitted to do all forms of melachah (work) on Yom Kippur, but forbidden to eat or drink anything?

A: If a person lives near the International Date Line and crosses over it on Yom Kippur from west to east, such that it is now Erev Yom Kippur in his new location, Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, rules that he may now do any type of melachah, for it is not yet Yom Kippur in his current time zone. Nevertheless, because he already began fasting, it is legally considered as if he already accepted the fast upon himself, so he is required to continue fasting until the conclusion of Yom Kippur in his present location.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email