Do We Need to Suffer for Torah?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The Gemara (Bava Kama 61b) expounds a story recorded in Shmuel and Divrei Hayamim. Dovid HaMelech was fighting the Philistines. A halachic question arose whether his army was permitted to destroy an individual’s property to save the lives of his men. The Philistines were taking cover in a privately owned field. Dovid HaMelech wanted to destroy the field and its produce. He was unsure whether or not he was permitted to do so. (This interpretation of the Gemara is preferred by the Raavad.) He lamented the fact that due to his proximity to his enemies, he was unable to seek guidance from the Sanhedrin. Unbelievably, Dovid HaMelech expressed out loud a related question that was bothering him. Suppose someone lights a fire on his own property and it spreads to his neighbor’s property. The fire consumes his neighbor’s haystack. It is clear that the igniter is responsible for the damages caused to the haystack, but must he pay for items the owner hid in there as well? The owner may have hidden his tools in the haystack to prevent thievery, while at the same time enabling easy access. According to Tosfos, this query was not in any way relevant to his dangerous predicament. But what else would Dovid HaMelech be doing in the middle of a war besides having Torah discussions? Three powerful warriors, upon hearing the King’s queries, took upon themselves to risk their lives to go through enemy territory to reach the Sanhedrin to find answers for the unresolved questions. They returned unharmed with the rulings of the Sanhedrin. The Gemara records the answer to the first question. Unfortunately, the answer to the second question has been lost to history, and the answer remains the subject of dispute until today. Dovid HaMelech was not pleased with the actions of the three mighty men. He reasoned that they were not allowed to put themselves in danger for the sake of finding answers to the Torah questions.

He therefore decreed that the men not be afforded the honor of having the answers repeated in their names. This, he explained, was based on a tradition he received from Shumel Hanavi that scholars who needlessly put themselves in danger should not have their Torah rulings credited to them. We find that great sages such as Rebbe Akiva endangered their lives to teach Torah. The Romans forbade the public dissemination of Torah on the penalty of death. Rebbe Akiva defied that ban and was ultimately killed for ignoring the Roman decree. Yet Rebbe Akiva is lauded for his actions. Why are these three mighty warriors derided for risking their lives for Torah? The answer is that Rebbe Akiva risked his life to teach Torah publicly. Such selflessness is praiseworthy. Here, the three men risked their lives to discover answers to Torah questions. Dovid HaMelech and the other Jews continued studying Torah even without these answers. Hence, their goal was to help a few individuals discover a new aspect of Torah. One should not risk his life for the benefit of few individuals learning a new aspect of Torah. Still, the Maharal points to a discrepancy between the above and a Gemara in Berachos (63b). “Reish Lakish stated: Torah only endures in one who kills himself for it.” Doesn’t that mean that one should be ready to sacrifice his life to be able to learn Torah? The Maharal explains that the Gemara in Berachos is just figurative. A person should be willing to learn Torah even under dire conditions if need be. Rav Meir Shapiro, the founder of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, was fundraising for his Yeshiva. The Yeshiva was based on an innovative idea at that time, that there should be a communal dining room and dormitory. Torah students shouldn’t have to search daily to find meals and lodgings. One donor was skeptical of this idea. He challenged, “The Gemara says that Torah only endures in one who kills himself for it.” Part of “killing oneself” should include finding lodging.

Rav Shapiro retorted, “The Gemara says that one should kill himself for ‘it,’ meaning the Torah. He should expend all his energy and time focused on the study of Torah. He does not and should not have to spend his time ‘killing himself’ to find meals and lodgings!” On another occasion, Rav Meir Shapiro encountered another skeptical donor. The donor argued that it is stated in Avos 6:4, “This is the way of the Torah: Bread and salt you will eat, measured water you will drink, on the ground you will sleep, a life of suffering you will live, and in the Torah you will labor.” “Yet,” the donor argued, “you want to boys to study Torah in comfort!” Rav Meir Shapiro responded with a story that took place with the Baal HaTanya. The Baal HaTanya was once traveling. He stopped for Pesach in a Jewish community. On the first night of Pesach, the congregation did not recite Hallel in shul. The Baal HaTanya waited until everyone left and recited Hallel. The rav of the town somehow got wind of this and went straightaway to where the Baal HaTanya was having his seder. The Rav challenged him, “Why did you recite Hallel tonight in shul?” The Baal HaTanya responded, “The Beis Yosef clearly says that one should recite Hallel on the first night of Pesach in shul.” But the rav retorted while banging on the table, “But the Rema says that is not our minhag!” The Baal HaTanya asked the Rav “Did you hear the Rema say it?” “ “No, but it is clearly in his sefer!” “Then how do you know the Rema said it while banging on the table? Maybe the Rema was lamenting, Too bad that nowadays we are not accustomed to saying Hallel?”” Similarly, Rav Shapiro argued, “The Tanna is lamenting, too bad that this is usually the way of those that learn Torah. They barely have what to live on, yet they persevere! But why not give those young men who toil in Torah optimal conditions? Hopefully, they will persevere regardless. But why make them suffer?”  

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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