Rabbi Daniel Stein
Rabbi Daniel Stein

Dying to Learn

The ritual impurity of a corpse is introduced with the words, "This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be unclean for seven days" (Bamidbar 19:14). The Gemara (Berachos 63b) infers from the unnecessary use of the word "Torah" in this context that matters of Torah can only be retained by a person who is willing to figuratively "kill" themselves in order to acquire it. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that a person has to metaphorically "kill" themselves in the sense that all extraneous disturbances and interruptions must be tuned out while learning Torah. In a similar manner in which the deceased are unable to participate in everyday activities, we must carve out times in our schedules which are free from avoidable disruptions. This is critical because generally the mitzvah to learn Torah is circumscribed to the hours of the day which are otherwise unoccupied by our daily responsibilities (see Kovetz Shiurim vol. 2 section 19 and Birkas Shmuel, Kiddushin, section 27 part 4.) Therefore, part of the obligation to learn Torah inevitably requires us to do our best to restrict our daily activities to specific parts of the day and cordon off other times to be dedicated solely to Torah study.

The reference to talmud Torah in this context also indicates that in order to learn Torah successfully we must be consumed with the learning of Torah even to the point of utter exhaustion. The Gemara (Shabbos 83b) derives from the word "Torah" in this pasuk, "One should never prevent himself from attending the beis medrash or from engaging in matters of Torah, even at the moment of death." How is it possible to learn Torah even at the moment of death? (Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro actually sees this as the source for the custom to recite shema prior to passing.) Rav Moshe Wolfson (Emunas Itecha) explains that the Gemara is instructing us to learn Torah even during those times in our life when we feel emotionally spent and physically drained, when we are empty of energy and void of desire. In fact, it is the learning that we do when we are fatigued that is arguably the most transformative. The pasuk states "In addition my wisdom remained with me" (Koheles 2:9.) The Hebrew word used here for "in addition" - "af" - also means "anger." This leads the Yalkut Shimoni (section 968) to conclude that it is specifically the Torah which is studied during times of "anger" or duress, when life is most challenging, that will leave an indelible impression upon us.

However, when we are tired and worn out our ability to retain information is usually dramatically impaired. How can we be productive when we are exhausted? Moreover, why should the Torah that we learn when we are depleted and depressed be the most formidable and memorable? Rav Shach (Avi Ezri on Nashim) answers that Torah is a supernatural discipline, an interaction with the Divine, which functions in its own dimension and by its own set of rules. When enormous effort is exhibited in an attempt to acquire Torah knowledge, Hashem gifts wisdom to the recipient even in a fashion that exceedes our normal human limitations. The Gemara (Megillah 6b) states, "If a person says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him." If a person has labored sufficiently then he has triumphed all on his own. Why does the Gemara insist on describing his accomplishment as something which is "found" or stumbled upon? The Chiddushei Harim explains that Torah knowledge is never attained naturally and independently but only through Divine benevolence triggered by a sincere and sustained effort.

It is for this reason that toiling in Torah is described as an inexplicable "statute", or "chok." The word "Torah" also appears in Parshas Chukas in connection with the purification process of the red heifer, the parah adumah, as the pasuk states, "This is the statute of the Torah which Hashem commanded" (Bamidbar 19:2.) Parah adumah is the classical enigmatic chok, for the very same ashes that purify the defiled also defile the pure. Learning Torah is mentioned in connection with the chok of parah adumah, because the act of learning Torah is itself a chok as well. Parshas Bechukosai begins, "You should follow My statutes" (Vayikra 26:3), which Rashi interprets as "you should study the Torah laboriously." What is so perplexing about the activity of learning Torah that it deserves to be labeled as a chok? The Chasam Sofer explains that laboring in Torah is classified as a chok because while there are exceptionally intellegent individuals who can master the natural disciplines quickly and with ease, it is absolutely axiomatic that Torah knowledge can only be attained through a demonstration of great determination and excessive toil, which then prompts a measure of Divine intervention.

In fact, all of the letters of the aleph beis are found in the blessings of Parshas Bechukosai with the exception of the letter samech, which has the numerical value of sixty. The Rokeach claims that this is an allusion to the sixty masechtos of shas, because as opposed to earthly pursuits and prosperity, Torah knowledge can only be attained through personal effort and exertion, and not by means of a great intellect, godsend, or benediction alone. The Steipler Gaon once responded to a student, "you must know that becoming great in Torah does not come from blessings. There is only one way to accomplish success in learning, and that is to distance yourself from wasting time and to dedicate every moment to Torah learning." While we should pray for assistance in retaining Torah knowledge, there is no substitute or shortcut for the hard work that is required. If we exert ourselves fully and allocate time for learning Torah properly, may Hashem bestow upon us a deep understanding of Torah, and may we enjoy the full spectrum of the blessings the Torah has to offer.

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