“This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent, all who come into the tent and everything in the tent shall be impure for seven days.” [19:14]
The word Torah means instruction, so it should not strike us as strange that this area of law is referred to as “The” Torah. It is quite unusual nonetheless, and here the famous Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish finds a “remez,” a “hint,” to the nature of Torah study. He says [Talmud Brachos 63b]: “How do we know that words of Torah are only well-established within one who kills himself over them? Because it says, ‘this is the Torah: a man who dies in a tent…'”
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, examines an apparent contradiction. We know that the Torah also says [Vayikra (Lev.) 18:5] that a person should observe the Torah’s commandments “V’chai bahem” – and live by them. The Torah gives life, not death! So how can the Torah also insist that we “kill ourselves” over it? To resolve this paradox, the Chofetz Chaim offers the following parable:
There was once a great businessman who was constantly approached by potential customers, not only from his city but from the entire region. His business kept him occupied day and night – and his wife as well – and he only rarely found time for himself. But as he grew older, as gray became his predominant hair color and his heart started to bother him, he began to think about the end of his life, and decided to prepare to enter the World to Come.
So one day, he went to synagogue early, prayed with the congregation, and then sat down to learn for a few hours before going to work. When he showed up to work three hours late, is wife questioned his delay – the store was besieged by customers, who were quickly disappearing because he wasn’t there! But he answered that he had been busy, and was thus unavoidably delayed.
The next day, when he again failed to appear, his wife went herself to see what he was doing. Finding him with an open book, she began to shout at him. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Have you lost your mind? Your store is filled with customers! I can’t handle it alone!”
Her husband replied, “my dear wife: if the Angel of Death were to show up now and tell me it was time to go, would you explain that I didn’t have free time just yet, and a store full of customers, and could he please come back tomorrow? Of course not! So you can imagine that during these hours it is as if I am ‘dead,’ and unavailable – will you mind if I am two hours late?”
This, the Chofetz Chaim explains, is the meaning of this teaching from Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. A person who truly wishes to learn and grow must dedicate a certain amount of time for learning, “off-limits” to regular distractions. This will enable a person both to learn and to properly observe the Torah – that which gives life!
Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.