Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Living Through Death
Among the ways through which one can contract tum'ah (ritual
impurity) from a dead body is "tum'as ohel - " by being situated under
the same roof as a corpse, as discussed at the beginning of parshas
Chukas. The Torah introduces this law by writing, "This is the law
['Torah'] concerning a person when he dies in a tent (19:14)." In a
famous extrapolation of this verse, Chazal (Talmud, Shabbos 83b)
learn from here that, "the words of Torah are retained only by one
who 'kills himself' over them."
The Rambam elaborates on this comment in Hilchos Talmud Torah
"The words of Torah are not retained by one who is lazy
regarding them, and not by those who study surrounded
by luxuries, food, and drink, but rather by one who 'kills
himself' over them, denying himself physical indulgences;
one who does not allow his eyes to sleep nor his eyelids
to slumber. The Sages allude to this when they state:
"This is the Torah concerning a person when he dies in
a tent" - Torah is retained only by one who kills himself
in the tents of scholars."
Taken on its simplest level, this derasha might prove quite
disheartening for your average run-of-the-mill Jew. How many Jews
even aspire to reach the level of dedication, self-denial, and sacrifice
implied by the comparison of Torah study to death?
Of course, the simple answer is that indeed, most of us don't aspire
to this level of dedication, nor do we merit its benefits. Namely, we
are denied the profound wisdom and insight reserved for those few
who truly dedicate themselves to Torah study. There are no shortcuts
to achieving greatness in Torah - the Torah accepts no less than
complete dedication and sacrifice. Just as - le-havdil - we understand
that while anyone can run or jog, to become an Olympic athlete and
compete at a world-class level requires years of training and
tremendous discipline and dedication; so too, the Torah is accessible
to all, yet to truly achieve greatness in Torah is the domain of those
choice few who truly sacrifice everything.
All the same, there must be some level at which we all can benefit
from that which the Torah encourages us to "kill ourselves" over its
The holy Chafetz Chaim zt"l explains that a person's success in Torah
study depends on his ability to focus on three fundamental ideas: The
first thing one should consider is that he has only one day to live.
When a person thinks that this is his last day, he will certainly do all
that he can to achieve a penitent mood and to perform mitzvos and
study Torah to the best of his ability. Imagine you've been "given
notice" - today is (G-d forbid) your last day on this earth. How would
you spend it? Would you squander your last, precious moments
checking the latest news and updating your stock portfolio? Or would
you make time to learn Torah with each of your children, discuss
important issues with your wife, and study mussar (ethics)? While
thinking about death all the time can get a little morbid, the attitude
and sense of urgency this type of exercise results in is an essential
ingredient of Torah study. Without it - there just never seems to be
enough time. In the words of our Sages (Avos 4:8): Don't say, "When
I have some free time I'll study - perhaps you won't have any free
The second idea he should focus on is that the chapter of Mishnayos
or the page of Gemara or Chumash he is studying at the moment is
the only goal he has to achieve. When a person focuses strictly on
the task at hand - this perek of Mishnayos or that daf of Gemara - he
will fully apply his efforts and toil in order to complete the job to the
best of his ability, without having to worry about completing the entire
tractate (or the complete Shas etc.). While it's important for a person
to have long-term goals and plans, all the more so with regard to
one's learning, it is important not to become overwhelmed by the "big
picture." Just imagine as if, for this moment, all I have to learn is this
one small section. It's as if to say, "While I study this blatt Gemara,
my goals are 'dead.' All I can do now is understand what's in front of
me to the best of my ability."
Finally, he should consider himself to be the one and only Jew in the
world who is studying Torah, and that it's in his merit that the world
continues to be sustained. This sense of responsibility and obligation,
that, "the world rests upon my shoulders," gives one a true feeling for
the tremendous impact and effect his Torah study has, not only on
himself and his soul, but on his family, his community, and even
upon the world. They used to say in the Yeshivos: A bachur (young
scholar) learning energetically in Poland can awaken an entire
community of Jews in Paris to teshuva (repentance). And a bachur
whittling away his time takes responsibility for all the good he might
have brought to the world had he been more diligent. There's an
expression in Yiddish - "der velt iz geshtorben - as if the whole world
were dead;" you're the only one left - it's all riding on you!
It's somewhat ironic that these three aspects of "death" should be the
key to Torah study, which is called "Toras Chaim - the Torah of Life."
Upon reflection, however, you'll see that it's not the focus on death
we're after; it's the "life" that arises from keeping our minds focused
and our lives rooted in the Torah.
I once heard a ba'al darshan exclaim: "You sometimes hear people
saying, 'I've got some time to kill.' It makes you wonder. After all,
what is life but time - a precious collection of many little moments
woven together into what we hope might ultimately become a fabric
of some substance and design. They're not "killing time," they're
killing themselves! May the Almighty give us the wisdom and the
insight to make the most of our 120 years, give or take, that we've
been granted to live a life of Torah and mitzvos!
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by Mr. Henry
Fenig, in memory of his father, R' Elazer ben R' Moshe alav
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.