This week we read the Torah portion of Balak. In the portion, it is related that when King Balak asked Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, Bilaam responded by uttering several prophecies. The first one established that it was impossible to curse the Jews, as they are especially beloved by G-d. “How shall I curse whom G-d has not cursed? And how shall I execrate whom the L-rd has not execrated?” he said.
Bilaam’s second prophecy went even further: Not only is it impossible to curse the Jewish people, but they deserve special blessing because of their good deeds: “Behold, I have received [the word] to bless; and when He has blessed, I cannot call it back.”
Bilaam then cites one of the special qualities of the Jews: “Behold, it is a people that shall rise up as a lioness, and as a lion shall it raise itself.” As Rashi explains, this means that “when [the Jews] awaken from their sleep in the morning, they show the strength of a lion to seize the commandments – to put on tzitzit (fringes), to recite the Shema, and to don tefilin.”
According to Rashi, whose explanation is based on a Midrash, the main reason G-d loves the Jews so much is their willingness to “seize the commandments.” Not satisfied to merely observe mitzvot (commandments) in a routine manner, they “seize” and “grab” them as an expression of their eagerness.
Reaching out to grab something is an indication of how much a person wants to possess a particular object. If he is not that interested in the object, he will not stick out his hand or rush to take it.
In fact, the Jewish people love G-d’s mitzvot so much that immediately upon arising, they “attack” them with the forcefulness of a lion. As soon as they regain consciousness they “put on tzitzit, recite the Shema, don tefilin, etc.”
On a deeper level, the act of “seizing” indicates an action that transcends logic. In the service of G-d, this is the level of mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, the “illogical” willingness of the Jew to give up his life for the sake of G-d. When we say that a Jew “seizes” the commandments, it means that he observes mitzvot with a sense of mesirut nefesh.
This brings to mind a statement of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who encouraged his Chasidim to actively demonstrate self-sacrifice in the face of Communist oppression: “Jews, you must grab mesirut nefesh now. Grab it! Because the time for mesirut nefesh is about to end. The day is coming very soon when there will be complete religious freedom; you will look for mesirut nefesh but will not find any.”
Indeed, in the merit of the Jewish people’s self-sacrifice throughout the generations, we will very soon merit the fulfillment of the rest of Bilaam’s prophecy – “a scepter shall arise out of Israel” – the coming of Moshiach, speedily. Moshiach NOW!!!