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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: The Tree of Life

Summary

The laws of the Torah referred to as decrees are totally beyond human comprehension. A person who is ready to "kill" himself to study Torah in the tents of Torah will succeed. We have to be ready to sacrifice our life as an expression of our love for G'd. Our continued existence is the biggest miracle of all. The Torah is the secret of our survival. More than we have sustained the Torah scholars, they have sustained us through their teaching and guidance. For every thousand who enter the yeshiva world, one great leader emerges. The Torah is referred to as "The Tree of Life and our yeshivot are the gardens where this tree is nurtured and brought into full bloom.

Beyond human comprehension

In the beginning of this week's parasha the Torah teaches the laws of how to prepare the ashes of a red cow to purify someone who became contaminated by being in contact with a deceased person. The parasha starts with G'd saying to Moses (Bamidbar 19:2): "This is the decree of the Torah." Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma that explains that these laws are referred to as a decree, since they are totally beyond human comprehension. In this way, they are similar to the prohibition of cooking meat and dairy foods together, or wearing garments of wool and linen mixed together.

Deceased in a tent

In the middle of the parasha it says (ibid 14): "This is the lesson in regards to a person who passes away in a tent." This verse seems redundant for the whole parasha is dealing with the laws of people who come in contact with a deceased person.

"Kill" oneself to study Torah

However, the verse can also be read the following way: "This is the Torah a person who dies in the tent." The Talmud (Berachos 43b) explains that on a homiletical level this verse teaches us that only a person who is ready to "kill" himself to study Torah in the tents of Torah will succeed. We find a similar interpretation in the Talmud (Gittin 57b) of what it says in Tehillim (44:23): "For your sake we are killed all day." This, says the Talmud, refers to Torah scholars who "kill" themselves to understand the words of the Torah.

"Love G'd with all your soul"

The Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) points out that we actually allude to this every day when we say in Shema (Devarim 6:5-7): "And you shall love HASHEM your G'd with all your soul." Rashi quotes the Talmud (Berachos 61b) that explains that this means that we have to be ready to sacrifice our life as an expression of our love for G'd. Throughout our long and bitter exile, persecuted Jews have many times fulfilled this verse literally. However, in good times, we also have the opportunity to live up to this ideal, as the next verse states: "And these words that I command you and you shall teach them to your children and you shall talk about." Rabbi Chaim Valozhiner explains that this portion of Shema refers to those who dedicate their lives to Torah study and are ready to forgo many of life's pleasures to accomplish this (see footnote Nefesh HaChaim 1:8). The Midrash Tanchuma says that this refers to the study of the Oral Law and explains that whoever seeks the enjoyment of this world will not succeed in this study.

See the light

The Midrash elaborates to explain what it means to "kill" oneself to become a proper Torah scholar with the words of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (6:4). The Mishnah teaches that one has to be ready to eat only bread dipped in salt and drink a small measure of water. In addition to this, one must be ready to sleep on the floor and live a life of pain. All this while one is toiling in Torah study. Only one who truly loves G'd, says the Midrash, will get involved in this difficult and painful discipline. It is like grouping in the darkness till eventually G'd enlightens the scholar and lets him see the light. As the Prophet Isaiah (9:2) says: "And the people who walked in darkness saw a great light."

Biggest miracle

We have entered the month of Tamuz. Every year the three weeks of mourning the destruction of the two Temples commence with a fast day on the seventeenth of Tamuz. However, at the same time that we commemorate the destruction and all the misery that we have experienced throughout our long and bitter exiles, we must remember the miracle of our continued existence through it all. Rabbi Yaakov Emden writes that this is the biggest of all the miracles G'd has ever made, even bigger than the splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Secret of our survival

What is the secret of our survival, despite being spread to all corners of the earth? The answer is the Torah. This gift of G'd has on the one hand separated us from all other nations of the world, and, on the other hand, united us under the guidance of our Torah leaders. The Midrash Tanchuma relates how G'd orchestrated that already twelve years before the destruction of the First Temple, the Torah scholars were exiled to Babylon (see Melachim 2:24:16). There, says the Midrash, they established two yeshivot where the Torah was studied in depth day and night. The Midrash continues to explain how these yeshivot have merited special protection ever since and have not been affected by the perils of oppression to the same extent as the rest of the Jewish people. When one analyzes Jewish history it is amazing to see how G'd always made sure to save Torah leaders and arrange for them to go to new places where they replanted the yeshivot and taught and guided the Jewish communities. They went from Israel to Babylon, and from Babylon to North Africa and Western Europe. And from there they went to Eastern Europe and from Eastern Europe to North America and back to Israel.

Sustained by Torah scholars

More than we have sustained our Torah scholars, they have sustained us through their teaching and guidance. These Torah leaders grow in the yeshivot, and G'd always ensures that the yeshivot "travel" along with the Jewish communities as bastions of faith and strength. This chain has been unbroken from before the destruction of the First Temple, and will continue till the final redemption, as the Midrash Tanchuma concludes. From early morning till late at night the sweet sound of Torah can be heard in the study halls of our yeshivot. This is how it was in Babylon, then in Europe and today also in North America and Israel.

One in a thousand

Obviously, not every young student who enters a yeshiva at the age of his Bar Mitzvah turns into a Torah leader for the whole generation. Our sages state that for every thousand who enter the yeshiva world, one great leader emerges. The others will develop into rabbis, teachers and lay-leaders who all teach by their personal lifestyle based on Torah values.

Tree of Life

The Torah is referred to as "The Tree of Life" (Mishlei 3:18) and our yeshivot are the gardens where this tree is nurtured and brought into full bloom. Let us all unite to protect and help to develop these institutions, so that we, G'd forbid, not lose our connection to our very source of life.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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