By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
What is the Torah outlook on fallen Israeli soldiers who were not observant? Does their sacrifice for the Jewish people put them in the stature of observant Jews who kept the mitzvos with regard to receiving a portion in the World to Come?
I would like to share with you a story involving my revered mentor, the universally accepted leader of Orthodoxy and Jewish law, Rav Shlomo Zalman
Every day, someone would drive Rabbi Auerbach from his home in the Sha’arei Chesed area of Yerushalayim to his yeshiva in the suburban neighborhood of Bayit Vegan. The rabbi would occasionally ask the driver to make a detour for a few moments outside Har Herzl, the burial site of Israel’s fallen soldiers, which was on the way to the yeshiva. There he would pray, reciting Tehillim (Psalms) for important matters concerning the Jewish people.
What motivated this venerated sage to choose Har Herzl for his prayers? I think the answer lies in the following story which is so revealing of his and the Torah’s outlook on your question.
A student once approached Rav Shlomo Zalman and asked for a short timeout from his studies so he could travel to the north of Israel, where many holy, righteous Jews of old are buried, to pray at the graves of these tzaddikim (righteous people). Rav Shlomo Zalman looked perplexed but didn’t immediately answer. Sensing hesitation from his rabbi, the student elaborated, explaining he had some important personal issues to think through and he felt praying at the graves of the righteous would help him to receive the insights and guidance he was seeking. Rabbi Auerbach replied that he fully understood what the student wanted to do and why he wanted to do it, but could not understand why he would travel for hours to a faraway place to pray at the graves of a few tzaddikim when there were thousands of tzaddikim buried on Har Herzl (the graves of all the fallen Israeli soldiers), just 5 minutes from the yeshiva!
It is with such awe and humility that we speak of the holy individuals who have given their lives for the sake of their beliefs and their people.
The revered dean of the Mirrer Yeshiva (the “Harvard of yeshivos”), Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz ob’’m, in a public lecture once famously compared the fallen Israeli soldiers to the “Harugei Lod.”
He was referring to the martyrs of Lod, of whom the Talmud relates they were granted the highest place in the next world in the merit of their martyrdom. The story had to do with the inhabitants of the city of Lodkia, or Lod, who were falsely accused by their Roman mayor of killing his daughter; hence the death penalty was decreed upon the entire Jewish community. Two righteous Jews, Papus and Lalineus, stood up and stated that it was they, not the community collectively, who were responsible for her death. They accepted the blame in order to save the remainder of the community. They were in turn killed (and so was that mayor whom they cursed before their deaths, by a bandit).
The Talmud comments that the portion of Papus and Lalineus in the next world is one that even the greatest of tzaddikim could not hope to even peer into, let alone receive. Rav Shmuelevitz was teaching his students that they should have the same view of those Israeli soldiers who have given up their most precious possession, their very lives, in order that the rest of the Israeli population can remain alive. He said that their sacrifice is similar to the sacrifice of Papus and Lalineus and that they receive a similar reward.
Our rabbis are teaching us there is a special place reserved in the heavens for those who give up all they have for the sake of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, regardless of their level of observance.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.