"Torah: To Live and To Die "
The Minsker Maggid (Rabbi Binyamin Shakovitsky zt'l, 1863-1938)
was famous throughout Poland and White Russia for his eloquent oratory.
Once when he was passing through a town near Minsk he was asked to
deliver a eulogy for a local tzaddik who had just passed away. Some of
the bochurim learning in the town approached the Maggid before the eulogy
and told him that the local shul had a vast seforim collection that they
kept under lock and key. All of the pleas of the bochurim to be able to
use the sefarim fell on deaf ears. The shul was afraid that if the
bochurim used the sefarim, they would become tattered and worn.
During his eulogy the Maggid related the following story: There
was once a mother whose young son passed away. She was crushed by his
death and mourned him for months. But as time wore on, her pain began to
diminish and she settled back into the routine of caring for her other
Just before Pesach, as she was cleaning the closets she came
across her dead son's clothing. It was all brand new and resting on the
rack neatly and in perfect order. Tears flowed from her eyes and she
cried out in pain, "Ribbono Shel Olam, if only these clothes were unkempt
and messy I would know my son was still alive. But now that I see them in
such perfect order, I am reminded of his death."
The Maggid continued, "I came into the shul today and I noticed
that there are rows of seforim in perfect order lining the shelves. Some
haven't been touched in months while others look new. This is not a sign
of beauty but a sign of death. The splendor of seforim is when they are
tattered and worn from constant use. The Torah (Vayikra 18:5) commands
us, "Vachay bahem- And you shall live by them", and the Gemarah (Yoma
85b) deduces, "V'lo sheyamus bahem- And not die by them." Seforim must be
used to demonstrate vibrancy and love, and not merely to adorn shelves."
Parshas Chukas delineates the laws of the Parah Adumah, the Red
Heifer, whose blood was sprinkled on those who became contaminated via a
dead body. In the middle of the Torah's discussion of the Red Heifer, the
pasuk says (19:14) "Zos haTorah adam ki yamus ba'ohel- This is the Torah
(i.e. laws) regarding one who dies in a tent". Chazal (Berachos 63b)
understand from this pasuk the concept of, "Ayn divrei Torah miskaymin
ela b'mi shamaymis atzmo aleha- The words of Torah can only be upheld by
one who kills himself over them." Chazal's words are very puzzling. The
pasuk in Vayikra (18:5) clearly says one must live through the Torah.
Here the pasuk seems to be contradicting that idea.
The Chofetz Chaim explains with a parable about a businessman who
managed a small store for many years. As the years progressed and his
success continued, his learning and davening in shul diminished until it
stopped completely. One day as he was looking into the mirror, he noticed
that his hair and beard were turning white at an accelerated pace. He
realized that he wasn't going to live forever and he would one day have
to stand before his Creator in judgment and calculate how much time he
had dedicated to his spiritual growth.
The next morning he went to shul early and davened meticulously
and fervently. After davening was over, he sat down and engaged in Torah
study for a few hours. When he finally showed up at the store, it was
close to noon and his wife was frantic. "Where have you been? I have been
overwhelmed by customers all morning!" He smiled gently and told her
something had come up and he was sorry.
However when he didn't show up the next morning as well, she
began to get nervous. She went down to the shul and looked inside. She
was horrified to see him swaying over a bunch of seforim deeply
engrossed. Shaking with anger she ran inside and started yelling at him,
"Are you out of your mind? We are losing business. Why are you sitting
and learning?" Once again he calmed her down and gently explained, "My
dear and beloved wife, let me ask you something. If you had found out,
G-d forbid, that I had passed away, would you come banging on my coffin
complaining that I'm laying lazily while the store is full of customers?
Of course you wouldn't. If I'm dead I can't help in the store anyway.
Well then, look at it this way. While I am learning in the morning, it is
as if I am dead. Nothing can disturb me during this time. In a few hours
I will be miraculously resurrected but until then this is my priority."
"This," explained the Chofetz Chaim, "is what Chazal meant to
say. Of course one must live and thrive from the Torah and its laws.
However during the time when one is learning he must be completely
involved and nothing can disturb him, as if he is dead."
[The Gemarah (Sotah 21a) also says that a woman receives a portion of the
merit of her husband's and children's Torah-learning because it is only
through her devotion and agreement to take care of everything while they
are learning that they have the opportunity to learn.]
The pasuk (Mishley 3:18) says "Eitz chaim hee lamachazikim bah - It (the
Torah) is a tree of life for those who hold onto it." Rabbi Sholom
Shwadron zt'l explained that the pasuk does not say "It is a tree of life
for those who support it", but rather "It is a tree of life for those who
hold onto it." The Torah does not need our support. The Torah stands on
its own and those who hold onto it tightly will merit its protection.
(Perhaps those who learn Torah need financial assistance but the survival
of the Torah itself does not depend on our actions for the world would
cease to exist without Torah.)
Rabbi Sholom continues that Korach made this mistake. As a descendant of
very distinguished lineage and as a respected member of Klal Yisroel, he
was one of the elite few who had the merit of carrying the holy Aron
(ark). However Chazal say that it was only an illusion that the Aron
needed to be carried for in reality the Aron carried its carriers. Korach
thought he was supporting the Torah and the Torah needed him. That notion
went to his head, led to his feelings of haughtiness, and eventually the
great quarrel ensued.
As the month of Tammuz enters, we approach the Three Weeks of
mourning for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. During this time
period, our Torah learning was not strong enough to save us from the
destruction of our enemies. During the nine days from Rosh Chodesh Av
through Tisha B'av the magnitude of mourning increases and we refrain
from eating meat. However in halacha it is noted that if one makes a
siyum (completion of a tractate of Gemarah or completion of an order of
mishnayos) one may eat meat. (There are many different opinions regarding
how much one can rely on this leniency and some halachic authorities are
opposed to it.)
I once heard from Rabbi Elimelech Bluth shlita that in theory the
concept of making siyumim during this time period is a great merit for
us. The Vilna Gaon explains that the angelic name of the Satan (spelled
Samech Mem Aleph Lamed, [Note: The kabbalistic authorities write that one
shouldn't pronounce the name]) is an acronym for "Siyum masechta ayn
la'asos- One should not make any siyumim." One of the greatest battles
the Satan has is to detain a person from making a siyum. The surge of joy
and spirituality that comes from a siyum motivates a person to continue
his learning and grow to greater heights. Therefore the Yetzer Hara
fights tooth and nail to prevent it. If this is true, then in this time
period when the Yetzer Hora has his greatest vitality, there is no
greater way to weaken him than by making siyumim and aspiring to greater
levels of Torah study.
The Torah is the life support of Klal Yisroel. "Ki haym chayanu
v'orech yamaynu uvahem neh'geh yomam v'laylah- For they are our life and
the length of our days and about them we will meditate day and night."
When one learns Torah it must be with complete devotion, for it is only
then that one can taste the sweetness and beauty of the depths of Torah.
There is a beautiful phrase recorded in the Zohar about the
greatness of Torah learning. When the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshayah
Karelitz zt'l) read the words, he went into a secluded room and composed
a song out of it: "Kad yasvin Yisroel v'askin b'simchas haTorah Kudsha
Brich Hu omer l'famalya dilay: chazu chazu banay chaveevay d'mishatkchin
b'tzarah dilan v'askin b'chedvasah dili- When Klal Yisroel are sitting
and engaging in Torah study, the Holy One, blessed is He, says to his
heavenly army: 'See! See! My beloved children who forget about their
personal problems and engage in My delight'."