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Devotion to Torah

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

No, it’s not your imagination. You really have been spending more time at the office since the recession hit back in 2008.

In Japan they call it karoshi and in China it is guolaosi. As yet there is no word in English for working yourself to death, but as more and more people put in longer hours and suffer more stress there may soon be.

In 2005, an American survey concluded that long working hours increased an individual’s chances of illness and injury. It noted that for those doing 12 hours a day, there was a 37% increase in risk compared to those working fewer hours.

Ronald Reagan was wrong, it seems, when he said: “Hard work never killed anyone.” Death from overwork is not a new phenomenon in Britain but it is largely unremarked upon.

The Torah seems to take a different approach when it comes to studying Torah.

Adam Ki Yamut B’ohel – “This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent” (Bamidbar 19:14).

The Gemara interprets this homiletically: “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: From where do we know that the words of Torah endure only if one kills himself over them? As it is written: ‘Zot haTorah, this is the Torah – Adam ki yamut b’ohel, a man who would die in a tent’ (Ibid.), i.e. a man who kills himself in the tent, in the study halls of Torah, is privileged to master the Torah” (Berachot 63b).

The Rambam, in Hilchot Talmud Torah (3:12), cites this passage amidst his exhortation that Torah scholarship can only be attained by denying oneself a degree of comfort and enjoyment.  A person who wishes to achieve Torah knowledge cannot indulge in sleeping, eating and other forms of physical enjoyment.  He must rather devote himself tirelessly to this pursuit, at the expense of physical comfort.  The image of “killing oneself” thus means compromising one’s physical comfort.

The Taz, in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 47:1), explains this passage somewhat differently, in reference to the exertion required in the pursuit of Torah study itself.  He focuses not on the withdrawal from physical delights as a prerequisite for success in learning, but rather the hard work that one must invest into his studies.  A student cannot possibly achieve any degree of scope or depth in his Torah scholarship unless he is prepared to invest maximum intellectual effort into the field.  “Killing oneself” thus refers to hard work, intense concentration and rigorous analytical thinking.

It’s not just about the amount of time we spend learning torah, it’s about the quality of time we spend learning as well. This can sometimes be even more important.

The Midrash Vayikra Rabah (3:15) tells the story of how King Agrippas wished to offer up a thousand burnt offerings in one day.

He sent to tell the High Priest: ‘Let no man other than myself offer sacrifices today!’

There came a poor man with two turtle-doves in his hand, and he said to the High Priest: ‘Sacrifice these.’

Said he: ‘The king commanded me, saying, “Let no man other than myself offer sacrifices this day.”’

Said he: ‘My lord the High Priest, I catch four [doves] every day; two I offer up, and with the other two I sustain myself. If you do not offer them up, you cut off my means of sustenance.’

The priest took them and offered them up.

In a dream it was revealed to Agrippas: ‘The sacrifice of a poor man preceded yours.’

So he sent to the High Priest, saying: ‘Did I not command you thus: “Let no one but me offer sacrifices this day”?

‘Said [the High Priest] to him: ‘Your Majesty, a poor man came with two turtle-doves in his hand, and said to me: “I catch four birds every day; I sacrifice two, and from the other two I support myself. If you will not offer them up you will cut off my means of sustenance.” Should I not have offered them up?’

Said [King Agrippas] to him: ‘You were right in doing as you did.’

Just like the poor person offers all from his heart, so to when a person devotes an hour of studying Torah, without any disturbances, he offers a special sacrifice that can match a thousand sacrifices.

Thus we have seen that we should reduce physicality’s (Rambam), increase our hard work in studying (Taz) in order to succeed in Torah.

There is a further ingredient (and explanation) offered by Rabbi Menachem Tzvi Taksin, in his work Or Yekarot to Masechet Shabbat.  He explains that one must keep to his schedule of Torah studies even if it requires that he act as though he is “dead” with respect to other responsibilities.  Many people understand the need to allocate time for Torah study, but they find themselves unable to afford the time to do so.  The Gemara, according to this reading, teaches that a person must occasionally see himself as “dead” with regard to other matters.  Just as a dead person obviously cannot tend to these matters, so must a Jew allocate a period of time each day where he simply cannot engage in other responsibilities, when regardless of other concerns he devotes himself to Torah.

On Rabbi Eliezer Yosef Lederberg’s tombstone in Jerusalem, it states that Rabbi Lederberg reviewed the tractates Rosh Hashanah and Beitzah 4,000 times.

Rabbi Lederberg, an ostensibly simple Jew who lived in Batei Warsaw, Jerusalem, was a storekeeper. Every spare moment was spent learning Torah. He once needed to have brain surgery. The doctors informed him that although he needed the surgery to save his life, he might never see again.

“How long can I delay the operation?” he asked the surgeon.

He was told that the maximum was six months. During that time he learned the two tractates, Rosh Hashanah and Beitzah, by heart, so he would be able to review them constantly if he went blind.

The surgery was a success and not only did it save his life, his vision was not affected. He kept reviewing the two tractates wherever he was, until he died in 1954.

In Japan they call it karoshi and in China it is guolaosi. We call it Amelut BaTorah – through exerting ourselves, we are not dying we are living! Ki Hem Chayenu VeOrech Yamenu – for they are our life and the length of our days!

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