The death of the righteous atones, our Sages teach, and it is for this reason that during Mussaf of Yom Kippur, just after recounting the special service done in the Temple, we read of the deaths of the “ten martyrs” so cruelly murdered by the Romans.
"They [the Romans] ordered the Rabbi Chananya ben Tradeyon be brought from his study hall, and they burned his body with bundles of branches. They placed saturated wool sponges on his chest to delay his death and, as soon as they were removed, he was burned together with his Torah scroll” (Machzor).
The Talmud (Avodah Zara 18a) relates that the Roman executioner, seeing the suffering of Rav Chananya, offered to hasten his death and relieve his suffering a little on the condition that he be “guaranteed” a place in the World to Come. When Rav Chananya promised that would be the case, he did just that, and upon the death of the great Sage the executioner himself jumped into the fire. A heavenly voice declared that “both Rav Chananya and the executioner are invited to the World to Come”.
It seems so unfair that killer and victim should receive the same reward. No wonder Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi wept as he noted that “some acquire their world in one moment”. What takes some a lifetime can be acquired by others in a fleeting moment. Such is the power of repentance.
Even a cursory reading of the story makes it clear that the Roman executioner was not moved to help because he felt any pity for Rav Chananya. He acted only after having been promised a place in the World to Come. And Rav Chananya's word that it would be so was not enough, either. He demanded the rabbi take an oath to guarantee his promise; only after such a vow was taken did he raise the flames. His moral awakening was purely utilitarian, using a cost-benefit analysis to decide to help the suffering Jew. Yet he merited a place in the World to Come! Such is the power of repentance.
Judaism teaches that one should aspire to act morally, irrespective of any expectation of reward. Nonetheless, even if we are solely motivated by reward, our moral act retains its worth. The recipient of our help cares little about our motivation; he needs help, not saintliness.
It is not by chance that the “hero” of our story is unnamed. All of us have moments that can potentially change the entire direction of our lives. It might be an inspiring speech, a great book, a moment with one's child, a near-fatal accident or perhaps a most meaningful Yom Kippur. Yet we often fail to take advantage of these moments, letting our pragmatism get in the way. The Roman willingly sacrificed his life after experiencing such an epiphany, deeply transformed by his acknowledgment of sin.
What people are willing to die for says much about what they live for. The Mishnah (Yoma 7:4) notes that the kohen gadol would “make a yom tov for his loved ones when (if) he left the holy [of holies] in peace”. This was not by chance. Many a high priest did not make it through the day alive; having attained their positions unjustly, they were unprepared for their encounter with the holiness of the day. Such unpreparedness in the inner sanctum of the Temple can prove fatal. Yet year in and year out, unqualified priests vied for the position, knowing they were risking their lives. They were, sadly, willing to die for a little honour.
Twice a year we read about the “ten martyrs”. On Tisha b'Av, we mourn; but on Yom Kippur, we are inspired by the lives of purity and sacrifice of our great Sages. And we are inspired no less by those whose lives were synonymous with sin, yet changed course at a crucial moment in their lives. May we merit finding our own moments of inspiration.
G’mar chatima tova!