A Time for Torah

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Hillel says, “He who seeks a name loses it. He who does not increase decreases” (Pirkei Avos 1:13). The first half of Hillel’s statement is easily explained by a well-known dictum in Eiruvin, “Whoever runs after glory, glory runs away from him.” But what is the meaning behind the cryptic second half of Hillel’s statement? The commentators offer various explanations. In earlier times, labor was typically confined to the daytime. When the nights started to become longer around Tu B’Av, laborers had more free time. Since sunset was earlier, workers got off earlier. Rashi says that is the meaning behind Hillel’s words. Anyone who doesn’t increase his Torah study after Tu B’Av will physically decrease. He will suffer as a result. The Minchas Elazar (Divrei Torah Vol 8, 31) rallies the reader to not merely learn Torah superficially but to use all his cognitive skills in understanding Torah. The Navi (Yehoshua 5:13–14), as explained by the Gemara in Megillah (3a), tells us of a meeting between Yehoshua and an angel. An angel confronted Yehoshua: “Yesterday, you neglected to bring the afternoon korban tamid, and tonight, you have neglected the study of Torah.” Yehoshua asked him, “For which sin did you specifically come to rebuke me?” The angel answered, “I came now.” The angel was telling him that the primary purpose of his mission was to rebuke Yehoshua and the people for the sin they were committing at that time: failing to study today. Rashi explains that during the day, Yehoshua and the nation were involved in a mitzvah and could not learn Torah. They were conquering Eretz Yisrael. However, since there was a cease in hostilities during the night, Bnei Yisrael should have taken the opportunity to learn Torah then. Yehoshua took the rebuke to heart, and that night he delved into deep Torah thought.

The rebuke is mindboggling. The weary nation had arrows and boulders aimed at them during the day. Every man knew his life was on the line. The intensity of the war sapped the strength of the soldiers. They needed and deserved rest for their tired bodies at night. Yet Hashem sent an angel to rebuke them and tell them to find time for Torah study. Moreover, we see from Yehoshua’s reaction that Hashem didn’t merely want the people to open a sefer and enjoy some relaxed learning. Hashem expected them to learn deep secrets of Torah that require immense concentration. This last point is further bolstered by a beraisa from Seder Olam quoted by Rashi in Sukkah (44a). Rebbe Yochanan expressed amazement at the level of Torah scholarship achieved in Bavel. He was hitherto under the impression that the scholars in Eretz Yisrael were superior. Rebbe Yochanan explained that the Torah scholarship in Bavel must be due to the sages who were included in the first group of Jews to be led in chains to Bavel. The verse describes these sages as “mighty warriors, experienced in war.” Seder Olam wonders how it is appropriate to label the exiles being led in chains as warriors. They were in captivity, in chains! The beraisa in Seder Olam concludes that it must be referring to “mighty warriors in the give-and-take of Torah learning.” The Minchas Elazar asks, how did the beraisa answer its question? Was there any learning accomplished while they were being led in chains? How is appropriate to call them Torah warriors? It must be that in fact they were learning even while in chains. Not just superficial discussions; they engaged in animated debate about the finer points of Torah. The description was appropriate because even at the saddest, most degrading, and worst part of their lives, they didn’t forsake their deep commitment to Torah learning.

There is a daf we learned this week in Bava Kamma that is terrific for daf yomi learners, but scary for yeshiva students. Daf 77a in Bava Kamma only has two lines of Gemara. What a great opportunity for daf yomi groups to catch up if they had fallen behind. Yet it is scary for yeshiva students, because the rest of the page is composed of two huge Tosfos commentaries. The Minchas Elazar says he has a tradition from the Bnei Yissaschar that those long Tosfos comments were composed by the Baalei Tosfos the night before they were to be executed. They were given the choice of conversion or death. The Baalei Tosfos chose the latter. They spent their last night on this earth composing those two long comments. Rabbi David Feder of West Hempstead points out that towards the end of the second Tosfos it is written, “V’ein l’ha’arich kan yoser,” usually understood to mean it is not fitting to spend more time on this point. Perhaps the Baalei Tosfos were hinting that they didn’t have any time left to write more. (Rav Ephraim Urbach has shown quite convincingly that our Tosfos in Bava Kama are Tosafot Tuch (German, from Tuchheim, not French from Touques) based on Tosfos of R’ Yehudah Sir Leon. We know that R’ Yehudah Sir Leon’s son was killed al kiddush Hashem.) Hashem demanded of the weary soldiers in the times of Yehoshua that they spend their free time at night learning deep points of Torah. The oppressed sages being led to exile in chains used that horrific time to engage in spirited Torah debate. The Baalei Tosfos used their frightening last night in this world to compose complex Torah thoughts. Says the Minchas Elazar, what can we answer? What will be our excuse for not using our free time for intense Torah study?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

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