IT'S TO DIE FOR
Rabbi David Walk
Like the book of Numbers itself, this week's Torah reading is truly eclectic, a concoction of stories and laws. The parsha begins with very technical information about the red heifer and the entire process of regaining purity after encounters with tuma or impurity, usually by contact with a corpse. However, the end of the reading begins the fascinating saga of the fortieth year in the desert, as the Jews approach the borders of the Promised Land. To a certain extent, the prosaic material at the top of our parsha, prepares us for all the death and warfare which will they will encounter along this arduous path. And, indeed, this narrative section begins with the death of Miriam and continues in the next chapter with the loss of Aharon. Generally, when I'm writing or speaking about this parsha, I skip the red heifer and all its complicated rules and rituals. I just can't get excited about the periodic frenzy surrounding the birth (whether in Israel or New Jersey) of a candidate to be the first red heifer in two millennia. Maybe I'm just a city boy and don't like cows so much. But this year I'd like to address a famous Midrash amongst all the technical stuff.
In the midst of the material about preparation of the red heifer for its sprinkling role, there is a famous verse describing the most common way that one can become tamei: This is the law: if a person dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:14). In other words ritual impurity is imparted by being in an enclosed area (the tent) with the source of the tuma (like Mr. Body from Clue). However, the Talmud has a famous homiletical take on this verse: Reish Lakish used to say: How do we know that words of Torah will only long endure for one who kills oneself for Torah study? As it says, 'This is the Torah. One who dies in the tent (of study)' (Brachot 63b). Resh Lakish is butchering (no reference to cows) the literal flow of the verse to explain that the only way to truly acquire Torah is by, figuratively, killing yourself over its acquisition. I recently watched the National Geographic series about Albert Einstein, called Genius. They depicted Einstein unable to eat or sleep for days while in the midst of his focused concentration to solve a theorem of physics. I remember the Rav berating us in class, 'How could go to sleep last night without understanding p'shat in the Tosofos?' I'm embarrassed to say that I slept soundly.
But there's a problem! Doesn't an equally famous verse state: You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord (Leviticus 18:5). And the Talmud explains this to mean 'live in them and don't die over them (Yuma 85b).' Well, which is it, kill yourself over it or live with it? Obviously, both! The Sfat Emet, second Rebbe of Gur, explains: Only through the commitment to be willing to give one's life (mesirut nefesh) for these precepts, does one merit the life referred to in the verse (Sfat Emet, Chukat, 5634). He further explains that only in proportion to one's readiness to die for it does one receive the life that Torah provides. And he quotes the verse: The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul (Psalms 19:8). We're trading some earthly living for greater eternal life.
To help illustrate this principle, Rav Nechemyah Ra'anan quotes a story from Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Here's how the story is quoted on Simpletoremember.com: Elijah the prophet took a little walk on the beach of the world, somewhere where the waves lap up upon the shore. He's walking along the beach, and he saw a little fisherman. Elijah asked the fisherman, the sweet holy fisherman, have you studied God's word? Have you studied the five books of Moses? Have you studied the Prophets? Have you studied the Talmud? Have you studied all the mysteries of the world? The eyes of the little fisherman began to shine with tears, and he said, Elijah, holy Prophet, believe me, I tried, believe me I tried, I have tried so hard but my mind is not strong enough, the Almighty has not blessed me with such deep understanding to fathom His holy words. So Elijah the prophet asked him: Little fisherman, tell me are you a good fisherman? And suddenly his eyes began to glow with joy, and he said, 'Believe me, Elijah, I'm the best fisherman on the coast.' And Elijah the prophet began to cry and his tears mingled with the ocean. He said, 'Fisherman, do you know why you are such a good fisherman? Because you know that life depends on fishing. If you only knew that your life depends on knowing the word of God you could have been the greatest scholar in the world. And Elijah the prophet is still crying because is not this world an ocean? Are we not all drowning in this ocean? We need good fishermen to bring us back to the sand, to the beach of God. So if you want to become a little fisherman, a pure little fisherman. We need people to study God's word, the truth, words are full of light. When you encounter Elijah the prophet tell him I may know only one word, but this one word carries me for a whole lifetime.
Pure Shlomo! The answer to my original question is obviously that 'dying for Torah' is a metaphor, and a very powerful one. Whether you're a fisherman, a physicist, a ball player, a musician or a simple Jew, you can only get proficient at your chosen goal if you break a sweat to get your hands on the objective. The prevailing thinking is that proficiency requires 10,000 hours of practice. The point is that there are no short cuts. So, grab a sefer, and get going.