This Motzoei Shabbos, we will move the clock backwards. However, it is a wonderful time to move ourselves forward.
The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13) writes that “although there is a commandment to learn Torah both day and night, the majority of one’s wisdom is only achieved at night. Therefore, one who wishes to attain the crown of the Torah should be careful with all of his nights not to waste even one with sleeping, eating, drinking and talking. [He should engage] only in Torah and words of wisdom.”
The Brisker Rov was asked: Doesn’t this contradict what the Rambam himself writes in Hilchos Deios that one should sleep eight hours a night? He answered that “it is not a contradiction. Indeed, the normative rules of good health require eight hours of sleep. But the laws of Torah study dictate that one who wishes to attain the crown of the Torah need not worry about that at all. He will live a supernaturally healthy life” (Bais Av).
Which nights are the Rambam and the Brisker Rov talking about? The answer is simple. All the great roshei yeshiva and gedolei Torah used to look forward to these long winter nights as the opportunity of the year and of a lifetime to grow in learning. During the shorter nights, they would often express longing for di lange vinter necht fun Torah. This need not be limited to bochurim in yeshiva or kollel yungeleit. We should all take advantage of this wonderful time Hashem has granted us.
But why, indeed, is night so special? First of all, Chazal (Chagigah 12b) teach that there is a special divine gift given to those who learn Torah at night. “One who learns Torah at night, Hakadosh Boruch Hu stretches a thread of chesed (loving-kindness) upon him by day.”
Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik 3:8) suggests that this means that others will do his daytime work for him. This nighttime learning seems to be even more obligatory when one is at home (Sanhedrin 92a). While our daytime learning is essential to our growth and stature, that which we absorb at night changes us exponentially for the better. We become enveloped in an aura of holiness and purity. One thinks of the beautiful video recorded for posterity by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv’s grandson. It depicts the centenarian posek singing the words of his beloved Gemara during the wee hours of the morning, shining like an angel from above.
Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, the great Mirrer mashgiach, puts it simply yet profoundly: “At night, man is much greater than by day. He is actually holy holy holy” (Daas Torah, Mikeitz, page 253).
Rav Avrohom Erlanger, who passed away just a month ago, added to the lofty words of the Rambam that we should not be misled by the ways of the world and the yeitzer hara into wasting our precious nights” (Birkas Avrohom, Maamorim Vehadrochos, page 47). He “practiced what he preached” and wrote prolifically on the entire Torah, mostly recording his thoughts during those long precious nights.
Just like Rav Elyashiv, his son-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and other Torah giants have all arisen in the middle of the night and learned Torah until Shacharis. The unforgettable maggid, Rav Shalom Schwadron, records his experiences living in the home of Rav Eliyahu Lopian for six enlightening months. After watching him meticulously get up in the middle of the night to learn, he once asked him why he did this even after long exhausting days. His answer was equally enlightening. “The opening lines of the Shulchan Aruch,” he answered with a smile,” are that one should arise early like a lion. After 120 years, they will ask me if I kept every line of the Shulchan Aruch. Imagine how embarrassed I will be if I didn’t even fulfill the first one” (She’al Avicha Veyageidcha, page 89).
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos, Maamar 36), explained the special power of nighttime learning in terms of what appears to be a contradiction. Yaakov Avinu blesses Yissochor, his son and the shevet of learning, with
the words, “Yissochor is a strong-boned donkey; he rests between the boundaries. He saw tranquility that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant, yet he bent his shoulder to bear and he became an indentured laborer” (Bereishis 49:14-15). The contrast is obvious. Does Yissochor take on the heavy burden because he seeks serenity? Yet, paradoxically, this is in fact the power of toiling in Torah. The more one accepts the Torah’s difficulties and responsibilities, the more aspects of the world one conquers. In the end, he even conquers the pressure itself and achieves tranquility as well.
This is true of the dimension of time also. The natural structure of the world is that the day is designated for action. “Man goes forth to his work, and to his labor until evening” (Tehillim 104:23). Night seems to be made for rest and calm. Yet, we heard from the Rambam that it is also the most propitious time for personal growth and elevation. Here, too, there is no contradiction. The power of night is the ability of its utter serenity to overflow into other areas and create new vistas and creativity out of the substance of its serene moments. It is Rav Elyashiv shteiging infinitely in the dead of night.
As Rav Hutner concludes, this is the secret of one who embodies the Crown of Torah which is synonymous with daas Torah. Just as Yissochor and his donkey-like embracement of his burden transform backbreaking work into serenity, so does the talmid chochom become able to rule on all matters usually beyond his training. His Torah crown allows him to advise authoritatively on medical matters and business deals. He gives guidance on marital issues and geopolitical conundrums because his ameilus and yegiah have achieved utter serenity, allowing the merging of soul, heart and intellect into one holy entity of truth. Rav Hutner triumphantly concludes, “Remember this rule. The power of daas Torah only coexists within those “who guard their nights for Torah alone, not sleeping, eating, drinking or idle talk.”
We may be turning the clock backwards, but we can take one giant step forward toward putting on the Keser Torah and gaining the power of daas Torah. All we need to do is harness the valuable commodity we are about to be given: extra hours of night. Let’s not squander them. They can be the happiest, most productive moments of our lives.