Brachos, 63a: “The words of Torah are only fulfilled in one who kills himself over it, as it says, ‘this is the Torah of a man when he dies in a tent’.”
In the midst of the discussion of the laws of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), Chazal (Our Sages) make a famous drush of the verse referring to the Torah of when a man dies – they explain that this comes to teach that a person must ‘kill himself’ over it in order that the Torah he learns be fulfilled. The commentaries offer many interpretations of what the Talmud means by ‘killing’ oneself. The Chofetz Chaim offers a fascinating mashal (analogy) to explain the Talmud.
A successful store owner had many customers but he was so busy that he did not have time to devote to prayer and Torah learning. After many years of living this way, the man started to be concerned that death was approaching and that he had done nothing in the way of spiritual accomplishments to bring to Olam Haba (The World to Come). Therefore, he suddenly decided one day, to pray with a Minyan and then learn for two hours, despite that fact that he normally opened his store at that time.
When he finally arrived at work, there were dozens of customers waiting to be served. The man’s wife saw what happened, but he simply explained that he was busy with something and was delayed. However, he did the same the next day, and his wife searched for him, finally finding him deeply immersed in his Torah learning. She lost her temper and screamed at him that he was causing them a great financial loss and that they would soon lose their customers to competitors. He answered her, by asking what she would think if, the Malach Hamaves (Angel of death) would come and tell him that it is time to leave this world. Could his wife complain in such a case that her husband can’t come now because his store is full of customers?! Of course she could not – therefore the man suggested to his wife that she should think of him at the time that he is learning as, so to speak, dead to the world, so that there is no reason to complain that he should be at the store.
With this mashal, the Chofetz Chaim explains Chazal’s intent that one should ‘kill himself’ over the Torah – it means that he should think of himself as ‘dead to the world’ while he his learning, to the point that he has no excuse that he is too busy to learn. In the same way that if he was literally dead, this would not be a valid argument, so too if a person has this mindset, then no distractions will take him away from his learning time because nothing else is of importance at that time.
In a similar vein, Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l explains the words of Chazal whet they say that at time of judgment a man is asked if he fixed times for Torah. Rav Lopian asks, that this question would only seem to apply to people who work, and the question is whether they set aside times to learn, but how is this relevant to people who learn all day?
He answers, based on the Vilna Gaon, that the question also means, ‘did you fix a time that was totally set aside for learning?’ and that you didn’t stop it for other matters under any circumstances. Or did you close the Talmud for every little distraction that arises? Needless to say, this point applies equally, if not more, strongly to people who only have a limited time to learn – to utilize that time to the best of one’s ability and not let outside distractions hinder the power of that time.
This is a particularly relevant message in today’s world where we are bombarded by distractions from all directions. It is very difficult for a person to focus on anything, especially Torah learning, which requires intense concentration. Technological devices, in particular, make it very hard for a person to put all his attention into his learning. Studies show that merely having one’s device with him, adversely affects a person’s ability to concentrate on what he is doing.
The Chofetz Chaim’s lesson teaches us, that as a much as possible, one must strive to cut off the outside distractions – it may not be feasible for everyone in every case, but if it is feasible to turn off one’s phone, then that is ideal – and as the Chofetz Chaim argued, just like nobody can have a claim against a dead man for not answering the phone, so too, if a person can communicate the message that while he is learning he is ‘dead to the world’ then nobody can expect him to interrupt his learning to answer the phone.
It seems that this idea is not limited to Torah learning. When someone is praying, he can also be very distracted by the possibility that someone might call, or he might remember something he needs to do with his phone during prayer, and be tempted to use his phone during the tefilla.
Likewise, when one is spending time with family members, the level of focussed attention that he can give to them strongly influences the value of that time spent. If a wife, husband, or child, feels that their family member would rather be looking at this device, then he will lose that sense of closeness that is supposed to be developed by spending quality time.
May we all merit to put the maximum focus into our learning, prayer and all relationships.