I’m Just Dying to Learn Torah!
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “The teachings of the Torah are not established within a person unless he “kills himself” for the Torah.”
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish bases this teaching on a verse that seems to call out “Explain me!” The Torah states, “This is the Torah [law]: If a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be ritually impure for seven days.” (Bamidbar 19:14) Why in the world is the Torah mentioned in this verse? As Rashi explains in Masechet Berachot (63b), “Where do we find that a person should die in tents of Torah?” And why should it be that a person needs to “kill himself over the Torah” in order for the Torah’s teachings to be established within him?
Reish Lakish’s teaching is cited as halacha by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah. The Rambam writes: “The words of Torah will not be permanently acquired by a person who applies himself feebly to obtain them, and not by those who study amid pleasure and an abundance of food and drink. Rather, one must give up his life for them, constantly straining his body to the point of discomfort, without granting sleep to his eyes, or slumber to his eyelids.”
The Rambam continues, writing: “Our Sages alluded to this concept, ‘This is the Torah, should a man die in a tent,’ ” meaning that the Torah cannot be permanently acquired except by a person who gives up his life in the tents of wisdom. (See Bamidbar 19:14.)
He notes an additional hint from our Sages to the utmost importance of extreme dedication to Torah study: “A covenant has been established that anyone who wearies himself in Torah study in a house of study will not forget it quickly. Anyone who wearies himself in Torah study in private will become wise, as the verse states in Proverbs (11:2), ‘Wisdom will come to one who is modest.’” (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 3:12)
The Rambam explains the phrase “killing oneself for the Torah” in two main ways. One approach is that a person must invest great effort in his search for understanding the Torah. In this light, our Sages taught that if a person will say that he has discovered the meaning of a Torah matter without investing extreme effort — do not believe him.” (Megillah 6b)
In addition to this investment of great effort, the Rambam explains a second approach to the concept of “killing oneself for Torah” in order to truly internalize and establish it within oneself. True acquisition of the Torah requires that a person deny himself life’s comforts that may serve as distractions or tempt him to waste valuable time and energy from his Torah study. As our Sages taught, “Eat bread with salt and drink water in measure.” (Pirkei Avot 6:4)
I’m reminded of a story I once heard from a Rosh Yeshiva regarding the topic of “dying in a tent of Torah.” I will tell it as I remember it, but I request that the reader not judge it too harshly and not “try it out at home,” as they say. A businessman with limited time for Torah study was constantly interrupted by visitors and calls in the evening during the time he had set aside for his precious Torah study. “What can I do?” he wondered. His solution was to ask his wife to tell all callers that he was unavailable because he was “dead.” Of course, as soon as the callers gasped and started offering condolences, she quickly explained that during the limited time he carved out for himself for Torah study, he "killed himself," as it were, in order to avoid any outside distractions.
Allow me to add an additional point on the topic of physical comfort/acquisition of Torah wisdom. Although the teaching in Pirkei Avot clearly indicates the need for avoiding comfort or luxury that might prevent personal growth in Torah, it is important to learn the entire teaching in Pirkei Avot. “Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah. If so you do, ‘Fortunate are you, and good is for you’ — ‘Fortunate are you in this world, and it is good for you in the World-to-Come.’” (Tehillim 128:2)
I once asked my revered teacher, Rav Moshe Shapiro, zatzal, if this teaching means to serve as an absolute decree that a Torah student or scholar must avoid the beauty and pleasure that Hashem created in the world. He answered in the name of the Gaon from Vilna that the warning in Pirkei Avot is a directive for a student of Torah who is in need of finding the correct path to follow in order to learn Torah. In the words of Pirkei Avot, “This is the path (darkah) of the Torah.” However, he concluded, this is not so for a Torah scholar who has already firmly and steadily travelled on a successful path of Torah acquisition. This category of Torah scholar shares the Creation in all its beauty and pleasures. Regarding him we are taught, “Fortunate are you in this world, and it is good for you in the World-to-Come.”
- Shabbat 83b