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Self Sacrifice for Torah

Jun 25, 2009
We read in Parshat Chukat: "this is the teaching (lit. "the Torah") regarding a man who would die in a tent" (Bamidbar 19:14), to which Chazal comment: "The words of Torah are not retained except by one who kills himself over it" (Shabbat 83b). As nice a drasha as this may be, it does not appear to bear any relationship to the simple meaning of the pasuk. The pasuk, after all deals with contamination associated with coming in contact with the dead. How does this relate to "the words of Torah are not retained except by one who kills himself over it"?

I believe that we can relate this drasha to the simple understanding of the pasuk. What is the Torah teaching us here? When a person dies, as pure as he may have been during his lifetime, his body attains the ultimate level of tumah once his soul takes leave. This serves to teach us that the body on its own, in the absence of the soul, is the ultimate in impurity. It is only the soul, the spiritual component of the body, which imbues a person with sanctity and purity. In order to merit the Torah which is all sanctity and purity, we need to "kill" our body and "resuscitate" our soul, for holiness and sanctity can only be found in the soul. While it is true that the body contains a certain degree of sanctity, it is after all the image of Hashem and must be buried in a dignified manner, nonetheless, the body on its own is the ultimate in impurity.

It is precisely because a person must "kill" his body that the Braita teaches us: "This is the way of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation - but toil in the Torah" (Avot 6:4). There are many who would be happy if the Yeshivot only provided their students with bread and salt and water in small measure! The truth is that today we would never be able to attain high levels of Torah learning while living under such conditions. This may have been fine for the Gr"a and others of his stature. For us, however, were we to sustain ourselves only on bread with salt and water in small measure we would not be able to fulfill the rest of the Braita to sleep on the ground - instead we would fall asleep on our "shtender". We could never learn under such austere conditions. We need to eat until we are satiated, all the while guarding ourselves against being ruled and guided by the physical world. Our soul must be the one to direct us not our body. In order to properly function, the body must be provided with its basic needs - we must not deprive ourselves of necessary sleep, and we must eat enough as well. Our goal in these physical activities must be, however, to enhance our Torah learning and mitzvah observance.

There is a particular gadol whose chiddushei Torah can be found in all of the Yeshivot. People say that it is evident from his writings that he was a very wealthy individual. He served Hashem and merited that his writings be studied throughout all of the Yeshivot, nevertheless had he learned under more difficult conditions, his chiddushim would have been that much greater. R' Shmelka of Niklesburg and his brother R' Pinchas author of the Haflaa were known to learn Torah day and night sleeping only when exhaustion overpowered them. The story is told that one of the brothers once reached his hand for a pillow to place under his head, at which point his brother remarked: "if you still have sufficient strength to reach for a pillow then you still have enough strength to continue learning!" Their mother used to say that she had two unusual sons - they rarely recited Birkat HaMazon (for they hardly ever ate) and they rarely recited HaMapil (for they hardly went to sleep) ... It was known that the Gr"a would learn twenty-two hours daily (see the introduction to the commentary of the Gr"a to the Shulchan Aruch written by his sons).

These are examples of people who "kill themselves over (the Torah)". This type of behavior, however, is not for us. For those on our level, we need to enjoy this world in order to succeed in learning. I am referring not only to a "little finger's" worth of pleasure but a mouthful. Even so, we must not let our physical desires dictate our direction in life, they must only be used as needed to serve Hashem and not more.

We must not let our thoughts and decisions be influenced by this world. When we weigh the various factors required to render a decision we must not take into account what is good for our stomachs, like those people who "make their stomach into their gods" (Chovot HaLevavot). What must be exclusively on our mind is what the Torah wants from me, what Hashem wants from me, which decision would better spread Torah throughout Am Yisrael, what would better sanctify the Name of Heaven. Other factors are of no significance.

In Parshat Pinchas Moshe Rabenu requests from Hashem: "May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly" (Bamidbar 27:16). According to Rashi Moshe's request was far more detailed: "Once Moshe heard that the Omnipresent said to him: 'give Zelafchad's inheritance to his daughters', he said: 'the time has come that I should claim what I need - that my sons inherit my position'. The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to him: 'this is not what has entered My mind, Yehoshua is worthy of taking reward for his service: 'for he would not depart from within the tent'".

Clearly Moshe Rabenu would not request that his sons inherit his leadership position if they were not worthy of such a position. Moshe Rabenu is not like other people, who see in their children virtues that they do not possess(!) Moshe Rabenu weighs every detail with accurate holy scales. If he feels that his children are indeed worthy of leading the Jewish people, then clearly they are fit for the position. Why then did Hashem choose Yehoshua to succeed Moshe Rabenu rather than Gershom and Eliezer? Chazal tell us: "Hashem said to him: 'he who guards the fig tree shall eat its fruit' (Mishle 27:18). Yehoshua spent much time in your service ... he would rise early and remain late in your house of meeting, he would arrange the benches ... he is worthy of serving the Jewish people" (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14). (There is an inherent difficulty with this midrash, for why was there a need for benches in Moshe Rabenu's Beit Midrash, are we not told: "from the days of Moshe until Rabban Gamliel, they would not learn Torah any other way but standing. Once Rabban Gamliel died, feebleness descended to the world and they would learn Torah sitting" (Megillah 21a). Perhaps the benches were needed for the tefillot).

We find Yehoshua's devotion elsewhere as well. When Moshe Rabenu descended Har Sinai, Yehoshua was waiting for him at the foot of the mountain (see Shmot 32:17). Why did he wait there? Could he not have awaited his arrival in the camp? No! Moshe was returning from Har Sinai brimming with "chiddushei Torah"! Yehoshua cannot wait for Moshe Rabenu to return to the camp, he awaits his arrival at the foot of the mountain - imagine how many chiddushei Torah he can hear as he accompanies Moshe from the mountain to the encampment!

Yehoshua did not just go to the foot of the mountain on the fortieth day, he waited at the foot of Har Sinai for all forty days! (see Rashi Shmot 24:13). For what reason? Did Moshe not inform the people prior to ascending up the mountain that he would remain on top for a total of forty days? (see Rashi Shmot 32:1). Yehoshua therefore could have remained in the camp the entire time only returning to Har Sinai on the fortieth day to greet Moshe! This is not, however, what Yehoshua does. He feared that perhaps the Divine Plan would be altered, perhaps Hashem would decide that Moshe must return from the mountain prior to the forty days stipulated. If so, he did not wish to risk losing even one single moment. He therefore remained for forty days at the foot of Har Sinai awaiting Moshe's return.

As we mentioned, if Moshe requested that his sons inherit his position then clearly they too must have been men of stature in Torah, Yirat Shamayim, and in all other middot. They may even have surpassed Yehoshua's level in certain areas. Even so, there is at least one area in which Yehoshua was greater than Moshe's sons - in his self-sacrifice and thirst for words of Torah. It was for this reason that Hashem chose Yehoshua to succeed Moshe rather than Gershom and Eliezer.

We find a rare and unique reward for self-sacrifice for Torah during the time of the Amoraim as well. The Gemara relates: "when it was time for R' Yehoshua ben Levi to die, they said to the Angel of Death: 'go do for him whatever he wishes'. The Angel went and appeared to him, R' Yehoshua ben Levi said to it: 'take me to the Garden of Eden and show me my place there'. The Angel said: 'Fine'. R' Yehoshua ben Levi said to the Angel: 'give me your knife lest you frighten me along the way'. The Angel gave the knife to R' Yehoshua ben Levi. When he arrived there, the

Angel lifted R' Yehoshua ben Levi up and showed him his place in the Garden of Eden. R' Yehoshua ben Levi leaped and fell to the other side" (managing to evade the knife of the Angel of Death) (Ketubot 77b).

The Gemara continues: "R Chanina bar Pappa was a close and constant friend of the Angel of Death. When it was time for him to die, they said to the Angel of Death: 'go do for him whatever he wishes'. The Angel went near him and appeared to him ... R' Chanina bar Pappa said to the Angel: 'show me my place in the Garden of Eden'. The Angel said: 'fine". R' Chanina bar Pappa said to the Angel: 'give me your knife lest you frighten me along the way'. The Angel replied to him: 'you want to do to me as your friend did?' R' Chanina did not have the merit to enter Gan Eden alive as did R' Yehoshua ben Levi. R' Chanina said to the Angel: 'bring a Torah scroll and see if there is anything that is written in it that I did not fulfill' ..." (ibid.). And indeed the Gemara reports that "when he died a column of fire appeared and stood as a separation between him and everyone else, and there is a tradition that a column of fire does not appear and stand as a separation except for one person in a generation or two persons in a generation" (ibid.).

R' Chanina bar Pappa was obviously a man of great stature, he was the gadol of his generation - or at least one of the two gedolim of his time. He was a gadol in no ordinary generation but in one of the generations of the holy Amoraim whose greatness we cannot begin to describe or measure. Yet, explained the Angel of Death to R' Chanina bar Pappa, there is one thing that R' Yehoshua ben Levi did that you did not: "did you stick close to people afflicted with raatan and engage in the study of Torah'?" (ibid.). (Raatan was a very difficult and infectious disease.) Amoraim were in the habit of distancing themselves from those afflicted with this illness to avoid being infected by them. But R' Yehoshua ben Levi would come close to people afflicted with raatan and would sit and learn Torah with them. Perhaps he would give them their own private shiur as was the case, in our generation, with R' Aryeh Levin

zt"l who would visit a leper colony on a regular basis, for there was no one else willing to do so. R' Chanina bar Pappa certainly gave of all his resources for his own Torah study as well as for the disseminating of Torah to others. There is also no doubt that immediately after his death he arrived in Gan Eden. Yet he did not have that unique self-sacrifice we find in R' Yehoshua ben Levi - endangering his life by teaching Torah to people afflicted with raatan. This explains why he did not merit being saved from the sword of the Angel of Death and entering Gan Eden while still alive, as did R' Yehoshua ben Levi.

Chazal tell us: "from the days of Moshe until Rebbi we do not find Torah and authority preeminent in one place" (Gittin 59a). What special trait did Rebbi possess that was not found in anyone else from the period of Moshe Rabenu until his time? The Gemara relates: "at the time of Rebbi's passing, he extended his ten fingers heavenward and he said: 'Master of the Universe it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the study of Torah but I did not benefit from worldly pleasure even according to the toil of my little finger. May it be Your will that there be peace in my place of eternal rest" (Ketubot 104a). Had Rebbi been a pauper this declaration would not have been such a big deal- OK, so he derived no worldly pleasures from this life. Rebbi, however, was no pauper, he was an extremely wealthy man. For a man of such means to avoid deriving any benefit from this world is something very great indeed. In his position, he surely had to host many dignitaries such as the Caesar, the Roman governor, and "lehavdil" many gedolei Yisrael. Without a doubt they were served the finest delicacies. In spite of all this, he personally did not enjoy even a little finger's worth of pleasure in this world. Rebbi was totally devoted to the Torah. This is probably what made him worthy of compiling the Oral Torah for us in the form of the six books of the Mishna.

We must attempt as best we can to overpower our negative traits: jealousy, desires, honor, and all the other negative traits. "This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent" - we must live with the physical world within the "tent of the Torah" - not to die, G-d forbid. We must eat and sleep. The negative traits, however, must be "killed, for "the words of Torah are not retained except by one who kills himself over it".

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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