“This is the teaching regarding a man who dies in a tent” (Bamidbar 19:14).
A person must always be careful, says the Tiferes Shlomo, to be constantly involved in Torah while he is alive. He shouldn’t postpone his studies for another day; as Pirkei Avos (2:5) teaches us, “Don’t say, ‘When I’m free I will study’ for perhaps you will not become free.”
Reish Lakish was the leader of a band of highwaymen until a life-changing encounter with R’ Yochanan, who persuaded him to abandon his life of crime and commit himself to Torah (Bava Metzia 84a). Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer relates that Reish Lakish and his former cohorts both passed away on the same day. Reish Lakish was accorded great honor in heaven, while they were pushed from place to place. They cried out bitterly, “Why is he treated differently? He was with us.”
The criminals were told that Reish Lakish left behind his earlier life and immersed himself in Torah and good deeds. The criminals then pleaded to be allowed to return to the world below so they could learn Torah. “Unfortunately,” they were told, “you no longer have that opportunity. You should have repented while you were still alive.”
This lesson is imbedded in “This is the teaching regarding a man who dies in a tent,” says the Radomsker. One day man dies and no longer can study Torah and serve Hashem. Each day of a person’s life in this world is a gift, borrowed time, to learn more Torah and do more mitzvos. One should appreciate the preciousness of time.
Mishlei (28:14) states, “Praiseworthy is the man who always fears…” Our sages explain that a person should fear missing an opportunity for spiritual growth and be uneasy that he may be spiritually inadequate.
A very serious yeshiva student married and began to establish a family; he subsequently became involved in his business and, needless to say, his Torah study suffered. The Chofetz Chaim once encountered him and said, “I understand your current situation is not what it was when you were in the yeshiva. But how can you entirely abandon Torah study? You should at least come to the shiur in the beis medrash and learn a daf Gemara or at, the very least, learn a perek Mishnayos. But don’t go without any Torah at all.”
The student responded, “This kind of learning is not really Torah learning. I’m used to learning continuously 10 hours a day, every day, intensively studying many blatt. What value is there in learning a mere perek of Mishnayos or one daf Gemara? I’m better off waiting until I can take a break from my business to learn with the level of concentration I was accustomed to in the past.”
The Chofetz Chaim reminded him of the teaching in Pirkei Avos, “Don’t say, ‘When I’m free I will study’ for maybe you will never become free.” He then shared the following analogy:
A man in poor health was advised by his doctor not to go to the bathhouse because his body could not endure the heat and steam. A few days later, the man passed by the bathhouse, and felt compelled to go in. Soon he was overcome by the bathhouse’s oppressive humidity and was close to fainting. Weak and exhausted, he barely dragged himself to the pool so he could cool off his overheated body. To his great consternation, though, the door was closed.
Despairingly he began to call for help. Someone came running over and, seeing the man’s sickly condition, immediately began to splash some water on his face from a cup of water he held in his hand.
“Do you think,” said the Chofetz Chaim, “that the weak man refused the life-saving water? Do you think he said, ‘What do I gain from a few drops of water? I need a lot of water to cool down my entire body, not some spatters’? Even a few drops of cold water can revive a person.”
Torah is like water, explained the Chofetz Chaim. When someone learns a great amount of Torah, it is like he has prepared a large basin of cold water to cool the fire of the yetzer that burns within him. But if he doesn’t have the hours in the day to study Torah, he should at least accept the drops of water available – the daf Gemara and the perek Mishnayos – that will help revive his soul and moderate the fire of the yetzer.
The young man accepted the heartfelt words of the sainted Chofetz Chaim and resolved that very day to attend the established shiur in the beis medrash on a regular basis.