I have a courageous client whose religious beliefs do not permit him to wear a mask. In preparing for the hearing in New Hampshire, I recalled the New Hampshire motto, “Live Free or Die” and decided it would be relevant for his case and researched it.
It is the motto, but not the full original idea. As I discovered, the motto alone as used today eviscerates the very words needed to live the motto.
General John Stark, an American War of Independence hero, actually wrote in 1809:
Notice the colon, not a comma and not a period. The phrase after the colon explains the phrase before the colon. It’s not two separate thoughts which would demand a period. Rather the phrase before the colon is the external concept and after the colon is the internal concept. In other words, before the colon is the external presentation and after the colon is the internal driver or engine.
That means that the internal driver of “Live free or die” is “Death is not the worst of evils.”
New Hampshire tried in 1945 to do right but they forgot the second clause, the driver of General Stock’s message for freedom. (Read to the very end to the surprising story of how General Stock actually lived this principle.)
This underlying spiritual principle is the driver of freedom. The key to freedom is knowing that death is not the worst of evils.
As we will see, this key is not only relevant for large life issues but on a day-to-day business and legal matters.
If you believe that death is the worst of evils, then you will do anything to avoid death. Life becomes death avoidance as evidenced by timidity and compliance.
We see that happening now. Public health has unilaterally declared a standard that death by virus is the worst of all evils. To avoid death by virus every shut down, family disruption and inhumane behavior is justified. In fact, all the public measures become “good” because they are avoiding the worst of evils! You are told to wear a mask, stay home, not see your grandparents or grandchildren, not make a living, not pray with a congregation, all because someone might die by virus.
Notice how public health has declared the exact opposite of what General Stock wrote and lived by. And, if you challenge them you are portrayed as being in favor of death by virus.
This clever manipulation is used to silence opposition to the lockdowns – for example, at least one Governor, when challenged by a reporter that the lockdowns were destroying lives and businesses responded to the effect that death by virus would be a worse result. This manipulation assumes that everyone has agreed to believe that death is the worst of evils.
Not General John Stock! Death is not the worst of evils!
We see this in the Torah. Moses killed an evil Egyptian police officer (Exodus Ch. 2:11), even though it resulted in a death sentence for Moses (v. 15) from which he miraculously, but barely at the moment of execution, escaped. Tellingly, he showed no regret for his actions when he was sentenced to death, because for Moses, death was not the worst of evils. For him, having stayed silent in the face of evil would have been a greater evil than his death.
Death or the threat of death is not dissuade us from doing the right thing. How much more so the fear or threat of mere fines, arrest or public harassment.
In the mid-1800s, the Enlightenment Movement sought to destroy Judaism by infiltrating ideas into the Jewish school system and modifying Jewish practice. In 1843, they influenced the Russian government to create a Commission of Rabbis to ratify the destructive moves. The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, defended Jewish belief, custom and education at the Commission. When the Minister of Culture angrily demanded the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s compliance on the basis of the “rule of law” and the Talmudic edict “the law of the land is the land,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe responded:
“Talmudic edicts,” replied the Rabbi, “do not require our affirmation. The meaning of the statement, ‘The law of the land is law,’ is that all taxes, assessments, and laws promulgated for the welfare of the land and its economy, are law, and enjoy the authority of Torah. This concerns only economic and civil law but has no bearing on the religion and practices of Israel, the least consequential of which are Torah, according to the Jerusalem Talmud. If the intention of these who deprecate religious customs is to affect our religion, then we are enjoined to observe those customs selflessly, as explicit in another verdict, `Suffer death, but do not transgress.’ “
No compromise. Death is not the worst of evils. Compromise of truth, even on a seemingly inconsequential matter, is a greater evil than death according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe was then arrested for his defiance and threatened intensely by the Minister of Culture, but remained unmoved.
Seventy-eight years later, in 1921, his great-grandson and successor was summoned for a ‘investigation’ by the precursor to the KGB. During interrogation, the secret police interrogator demanded that the Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, compromise his principles. The Rebbe refused. The interrogator drew his pistol and pointed it at the Rebbe saying: “This toy does away with many principles, and opens the mouth of the dumb.” The Rebbe continued to refuse and responded: “You are absolutely mistaken for this toy impresses only those who do not believe, these cowards who have only one world and many gods, to whom each passion is a god and they are afraid to lose this only world. But as to Jews who have only one G-d, but two worlds, this toy does not frighten, and even makes no impression whatever!” Stymied, the interrogator re-holstered his pistol. Six years later, the Rebbe was arrested and sentenced to death by the Communists for spreading Judaism in Soviet Russia and showed the same resolve, refusing to comply with any prison rules at the price of beatings and torture, until he was miraculously released.
Clearly, death is not the worst of evils.
If a person forgets that and begins to believe that everything possible must be done to avoid death as the worst evil, they become willing to surrender any freedom to avoid this evil, usually bit by bit.
During the height of airplane hijackings, passengers were advised by ‘experts’ to not do anything to anger the hijackers but instead comply will all orders, lest the hijackers kill the passengers. This advice preyed on the fear of death and advanced the interests of the hijackers. The truth is the opposite – rapid immediate resistance, in the chaos before the hijackers consolidate their control, is the very best time to resist. But to do that, you have to be convinced of what General Stark said.
This decision is before us on a daily basis. Underlying our fears is the fear of death. For example, fear of losing a job is a fear of not having food, and so forth. In Torah, embarrassment is compared to death. So once a person believes death is the worst of evils, they can start to cheat to make a living or stay in a bad job just to have a job or be afraid to speak the truth because they are afraid of embarrassment from critics.
I also see that in litigation clients often have undercurrents of belief that are driving their decisions, decisions that are not in their best interest. And I suggest that it can be traced back to failing to understand that “death is not the worst of evils.” And this fear may underly the drive of innocent people to take plea bargains.
A person, a state or a country can declare and fly the flag of “Live free or die” but if they forget the spiritual conviction that “death is not the worst of evils,” they will lack the conviction to preserve freedom. We see this unfolding before our eyes as death by virus is promoted as the worst of evils and, by accepting that premise, freedom vanishes. If this is the response to something invisible, then if America is someday, G-d forbid, cornered and threatened “surrender or die”, the same lack of conviction will lead to surrender, G-d forbid.
Therefore, it is imperative for each one of us to strengthen our conviction that death is not the worsts of evils so that we may, indeed, live free.
Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Smith
P.S. On the subject of General Stark, in 1752, as a young man, while on hunting trip, he was ambushed and taken prisoner by Abenaki natives. A friend of his was killed during the raid. He was taken to Canada where the tribe lived. He was made to run a gauntlet – he was to be beaten with sticks by two facing rows of warriors. As he approached the gauntlet, he seized the stick from the first warrior and proceeded to beat that warrior. The other warriors were shocked by this remarkable behavior. The tribal chief was so impressed by Stark’s bravery that he adopted John Stark into the tribe and Stark remained there through the winter.
We can see from this story that General Stock’s attitude of “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils” was something he lived from his youth. He was completely and massively outnumbered on foreign territory facing armed warriors who had killed his friend – yet he refused to comply with their system. He knew that death was not the worst of evils and, for him, it would be a greater evil to submit himself to the beating. Not only did he not die because of his choice, he actually won the respect and admiration of his enemies, went on to great military victories and lived to 93. It was with that energy and conviction that the United States of America was founded.