Why Die for these 3?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon

Judaism cites three severe sins, for which one must die and never violate: idolatry, adultery, and murder. If one was coerced at gunpoint to violate any of these three, he must take the bullet and not violate. What is their common severity?

When we say one must die instead of violating a certain sin, it means that one’s death is preferable to continued life with such a violation. Such a violation would render the person's life worthless. What then is the worthlessness in each case?

If one were to commit idolatry, he demonstrates a bankrupt soul: his intelligence does not function on an acceptable level. As his concept of God is distorted—as his primary goal is lost—his life is worthless. This is a sin of intelligence.

If one would commit adultery, it displays his lusts have no bounds, and he would destroy a family for a momentary gratification. His attachment to lusts once again render his life worthless, as he chooses sensuality over wisdom. This is a sin of the emotions. These two sins comprise man’s intellect and lusts. 

But murder relates not to man’s intellect or instincts, but to his psychological world, a powerful component being one's ego. Murder is an ego expression, the most violent display of intolerance towards one whom he feels wronged him. The victim is intolerable in the murderer’s mind. The victim crossed the threshold of personal insult. One murders to eliminate an intolerable personality. The murderer’s emotions must override another’s life. The murderer prioritizes his psychological world view over reality. It is only in his mind that the murderer seeks a balance of justice. When one prioritizes his inner world over what is actual, he has expressed the same corruption as idolatry where one manufactures a new “reality” in his fantasy. But God created man not to live in his emotional world, but in external reality. Prioritizing our emotional world over God’s will that we live in reality, one again forfeits his purpose. His existence is worthless. 

When a life is rendered worthless by a severe sin, one must not violate that sin under any condition. One must choose death over sinning. Thus, these three sins refer to three cases of a life rendered worthless. One could render his own life worthless through either distorted ideas (idolatry), through overvaluing sensual gratification (adultery), or one can unleash his ego and murder another.

Our lives lose all value when we fail to meet a certain threshold of intellectual truth through idolatry, or if we should cave to a certain threshold of lust through adultery. Our lives also lose all value if we prioritize our psychological world by unjustly terminating another life.