“This is the Torah: when a person dies in a tent ...” (Num. 19:14)
While the topic of this passage is the ritual impurity (tum'ah) that comes from contact with the dead, the Talmud (Berachot 63b) gives a homiletic interpretation about those who toil in the study of Torah:
“From where do we learn that Torah study is only truly absorbed by one who ‘kills himself’ over it? As it says, ‘This is the Torah — when a person dies in the tent [of Torah learning].'”
Why does Torah study require such a high degree of self-sacrifice and commitment?
The purpose of society is to provide normal living conditions, without excessive hardships, for its citizens. In order to achieve this goal, however, there must be some individuals who are willing to serve the community beyond the ordinary call of duty. For example, firefighters, soldiers, police officers and other security personnel must be prepared to work long and irregular hours, and accept the dangers inherent in their jobs. Without their willingness to accept these hardships, the entire populace would suffer from untended fires, violence, crime, war, and other threats to the community’s stability and safety.
In a similar fashion, those individuals who are willing to dedicate their lives to Torah study are guardians for the entire Jewish people. Just as a soldier cannot properly perform his service to the nation without a willingness for self-sacrifice, so too, Torah scholars must totally dedicate themselves to their mission. Only with this spirit of commitment will they succeed in nurturing the spiritual light of Israel and enriching the authentic inner life of the nation.
The breadth and depth of knowledge required for true Torah scholarship necessitates long and intensive hours of study. This must come at the expense of pleasures and leisure activities that are acceptable for the general population. Only by overcoming the desire for creature comforts and “the easy life” — by demonstrating their willingness to “kill themselves” in the tents of Torah — do these scholars prove their worthiness to lead the nation in attaining its spiritual aspirations.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 261-262; adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 390)
Illustration image: Maurycy Trębacz, “La disputa” c. 1920-1940.