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Mesirath Nefesh is widely considered a virtue. It is treated by Musar-givers throughout the world as though it is the most important virtue after fear of Heaven. But what is it based on? There are many Mitzvoth requiring us to give. But it usually is a minor financial sacrifice, often based upon one's means: give an animal sacrifice; give Ma'aser; give half a Shekel. Even when one is told to put forth physical effort, it is along the lines of helping in a way that isn't self-detrimental: help your enemy's donkey with its burden; help your fellow who is being attacked (though we are not required to endanger our own lives for this); help your brothers in arms (although you'd potentially be putting yourself in harm's way, it's also in your own self-interest to be a part of the military unit protecting the people - including your own family).

But is there a Mitzvah - or at least a source in Pesukim - that putting one's own interests aside to accomplish something greater, even if it requires self-sacrifice, great effort, or some heavy loss, is a virtue, let alone the great virtue that it is so often said to be?

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I think there are a few examples of this concept in Parshas Lech-Lecha and Vayeira. –  Dave May 30 '12 at 16:50
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@SethJ: ואהבת את ה' אלקיך... בכל נפשך: אפילו הוא נוטל את נפשך (Berachos 54a). –  Alex May 30 '12 at 18:06
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Can you define Mesirath Nefesh in your post somewhere? –  Double AA May 30 '12 at 18:26
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@Alex, is that an answer? –  Seth J May 30 '12 at 18:29
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@DoubleAA, I think my closing paragraph defines the virtue I'm talking about. Did you mean a literal translation? –  Seth J May 30 '12 at 18:30
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up vote 9 down vote accepted

To start with, there is the commandment in the Torah (Deut. 6:5): ואהבת את ה' אלקיך... ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך ("You shall love Hashem your G-d... with all of your soul and with all of your might"), which the Mishnah (Berachos 54a) explains to mean, "even if He is taking your soul away," and "with all of your money." In a halachic context this is cited in Sanhedrin 74a, as the source for the idea that certain mitzvos - the Gemara there applies it specifically to idol worship* - are not to be transgressed even at the cost of one's life or one's finances. This is codified as halachah by Rambam, Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 5:7, who cites the same verse.

In Tanach we also have the examples of Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah refusing to bow to Nevuchadnetzar's statue at the risk of their lives (Dan. 3) - and note that according to Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 3a, ד"ה שלא השתחוו, et al) it may not have even been made with idolatrous intentions, but rather to glorify the king; and Daniel continuing to pray in violation of Darius' orders (Dan. 6).


* That the same is true of the other "big two," murder and sexual immorality, is derived from a different verse.

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