American military hero, General George Patton notoriously said to his troops that the objective in battle is not to die for your country but to get the enemy (Patton used more colorful language) to die for his. The context is different but the underlying message of the Torah is the same. Death is not the test of one’s devotion to a cause. Thus, the Torah admonishes: “And you shall observe My decrees and My laws which a human being shall perform and he shall live by them; I am the Lord.” (Lev. 18:5).
From the perspective of Jewish law, the Sages consider this seemingly superfluous remark (Who would really consider performing laws that would cause death?) as the rationale for violating the Torah when life is threatened. As the Talmud (Yoma 85b) puts it: “Desecrate one Sabbath so that you may observe many others.” The preservation of life in Judaism is a supreme value.
In contrast, other religions have placed a premium on martyrdom by celebrating the deaths of martyrs or by encouraging the act. While it is true that there have been times in Jewish history when martyrdom occurred (Massada, the Crusades, the Holocaust), these are exceptions rather than the rule. And while it is true that under certain circumstances the Sages advise martyrdom, these are exceptions. Viktor Frankl documented the lives of many inmates of Auschwitz and what he chronicled in his landmark book Man’s Search for Meaning is that the Jewish inmates had many reasons to commit suicide but their overwhelming desire was to find a reason to live rather than a reason to die.
Life is a gift. It is not something that should be eagerly forfeited.