“This is the Torah law: when a person dies in a tent ....” (Num. 19:14)
This verse introduces the laws of impurity connected to death. But the Sages derived from here an important lesson about the essence of Torah:
“Rabbi Yonatan said: One should never abstain from attending the Beit Midrash [the house of study] and from Torah — even in the hour of death. As it says, “This is the Torah: when a person dies in a tent.” Even in the hour of death, one should be engaged in Torah study.” (Shabbat 83b)
Why did the Sages teach that one should study Torah in all situations — even on one’s deathbed?
All societies have codes of moral conduct. The primary function of a moral code is to regulate communal life, so that members of society will assist rather than harm one another. It follows that these codes of behavior are only necessary when one is part of a community.
One may regard the Torah as simply a body of ethical teachings, and as such, only relevant during one’s lifetime. In fact, the Torah is more than just a moral code. All of its teachings, even those which regulate society, are meant to repair society in a way that prepares both its collective spirit as well as its individual members for eternal life.
Torah study remains relevant even during one’s final moments, as one prepares to leave the transient life of this world and enter eternal life.
Rabbi Yonatan used the metaphor of one studying in the “tent of Torah.” This tent is not a place of private, individual study. Rather, it signifies a fellowship of Torah scholars, the mind-sharpening milieu of the Beit Midrash. One might think that this form of communal study is only important to cultivate friendship and camaraderie. The Sages, however, emphasized that Torah study of the Beit Midrash is deeply bound to eternal holiness. This collective study sanctifies time and elevates life.
Thus, even at the hour of death, one should be engaged in Torah study. All of Torah, even those laws which serve to regulate society, illuminate life with a timeless light. Its details are permeated with nobility and holiness. So that “when a person dies,” he should remain “in the tent” – in the company of scholars who love and cherish Torah. Then one will continue to grow in its eternal light, “going from strength to strength.”
As the Sages taught:
“Torah scholars have no rest — not in this world nor in the next” (Berakhot 64a).
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 163-164)
Illustration image: Group of Jewish elders, newly arrived from Yemen, study Torah in a synagogue in the land of Israel (Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1906–1918)