We study this lesson and we wonder how we can adapt that admonition of Chazal to our lives. How is it possible for us to negate everything in life and achieve the single-minded dedication Chazal say is necessary to “own”Torah?
Some question whether or not it is indeed possible for people to attain that lofty level; they therefore compromise and aspire to lesser degrees of accomplishment.
Last Friday, I met someone who demonstrated how it can be accomplished. My friend Rabbi Yisroel Besser was going to visit Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin and asked me to join him. We drove to the prison in Otisville, New York.
Jail is an awful experience, even for a visitor. The picturesque drive made it even worse. Otisville is a quaint old town, similar to the thousands of towns that dot this great country. Passing by nice, old Victorian homes, neatly trimmed lawns, wide expanses and forests just made the trip harder. We knew where we were headed, and somehow, the view was incongruous. We finally arrived at our destination. It was the hottest day of the year so far, the sun was shining brightly, the grass was green and luscious, and the razor wire surrounding the buildings glistened.
We sat in an intensely hot visiting room, the whirr of noisy ceiling fans overhead, and waited for the prisoner to be allowed out to join us where inmates receive their guests. After a few minutes, Sholom Mordechai came bouncing into the room. On his face was a wide, infectious smile. The drab brown khaki uniform he wears there was unable to camouflage his personality.
We sat with him, chatting about this and that, and in middle of our conversation, the inevitable question came up: “How do you do it? How do you stay sane in this place where an ordinary visitor has trouble remaining calm, even with his car parked outside and the freedom to leave at any time?”
Sholom Mordechai explained it very simply and matter-of-factly.
Many of the inmates invest considerable effort toward improving their physical situation there. They jog, work out, play ball, and do what they can to strengthen their bodies. They watch TV or engage in other activities that bring them some degree of pleasure. They try to spice up their food to give it extra taste and avail themselves of the opportunities in the prison that provide even momentary minor physical satisfaction.
It is understandable that people seek to improve their situation. If they wouldn’t, it would be a sign of depression and that they have given up on life.
Sholom Mordechai decided that the drive to achieve fleeting enjoyment is just that – fleeting. It’s gone in a flash. The meal is spicier, but then it’s gone and forgotten. A few extra spices won’t make ordinary food into haute cuisine. A stronger body is of no use behind bars and won’t lead to earlier parole. The guy with the spicier fries and bigger muscles, at the end of the day, is locked up behind bars, away from everyone he loves and cares about, unable to be productive or happy.
When he was imprisoned, Sholom Mordechai decided that while his physical body can be locked up behind bars and subjugated to the will of others, his spiritual side is his — under his control – and cannot be walled in and held down by anyone. He began concentrating on feeding and satiating his neshomah, rather than worrying about pleasing his guf.
And that is what he does. He gets up, he davens, he learns and he concentrates on observing the mitzvos as best as he can. He doesn’t have a mortgage to pay, car payments to meet, or any social obligations. He can learn and do mitzvos all day. With his neshomah steadily improving, he remains happy and content with his lot.
He said it so simply, so matter-of-factly, but the impact of what he related was so powerful.
Boruch Hashem, most of us reading this column are not imprisoned by other people. We are not locked behind bars and barbed wire. We get all the spices we want and we can jog and walk anywhere we please. Yet, we are imprisoned by our guf, by our wants and our needs. We have so many things that we must do, places where we must go, and positions that we must take, that, at the end of the day, we are often left drained and empty.
As Sholom Mordechai was telling us about his day and how he maintains his sanity and good cheer, I was thinking about the posuk of “Zos chukas haTorah” mentioned earlier. Happiness and satisfaction are achieved through suppressing the guf.
The Torah uses the appellation “adam” when referring to a person. The name adam refers to man’s earthliness. As the posuk (Bereishis 2:7) states, “Vayitzer Hashem Elokim es ha’adam afar min ha’adamah.” Perhaps we can expound on the message of Chazal on “Zos chukas haTorah adam ki yomus b’ohel.” The way to be koneh Torah is to slay your bechinas adamah. The way to rise above the pettiness and depression of life is to eliminate the gufniyus that confines us. We should do what we can to ensure that it is our ruchniyus that defines us. We will thus enjoy not only Torah, but life as well.
One of the great talmidim of the Lubliner Rov, Rav Meir Shapiro, was Montreal’s late Rav Pinchos Hirschprung. A famed gaon, it is said that he would review entire masechtos while taking walks. During a car trip from Montreal to New York, he would review several masechtos. When people would speak to him, it was apparent that it took some effort for him to disengage himself from learning even for a few moments. One time, when asked where he lived, he quipped, “In Bavel,” hinting that he dwelled in Talmud Bavli.
It was a pithy remark, but one that reflects man’s ability to be transported through learning Torahto a higher level and a different playing field.
There was a meshulach who traveled through the shtetlach of Lita raising money for the legendary NovardokerYeshiva. Blessed with an engaging personality, the townspeople and rabbonim would joyously welcome him, eager to hear him report on his travels, keeping people abreast of what was doing in the other towns and telling many interesting stories.
When his travels brought him to Karlin, the meshulach immediately went to visit the rov, the great gaon Rav Dovid’l (Friedman) Karliner. When he arrived at the rov’s home, Rav Dovid’l was learning. Not wanting to disturb him, the meshulach sat down and waited patiently for the rov to look up from his Gemara. Finally, therov looked up.
The meshulach introduced himself and told the rov why he was there. The rov gave him a donation.
Unable to tear himself away from the beautiful sight of the aged rov learning, the meshulach sat back down to watch the venerated Rav Dovid’l engrossed in asugya.
The rov was oblivious to him, as he was focused on the Gemara. After a long while, he looked up and noticed the meshulach watching him.
“Shalom aleichem,” Rav Dovid’l said to his guest. “How can I help you?”
The meshulach was confused, for he had earlier explained his reason for coming. Nonetheless, once again he told the rov his name and why he came, and Rav Dovid’l handed him a donation. Within seconds, Rav Dovid’l was once again lost in his Gemara.
The meshulach sat down yet again to watch the beautiful sight. He just couldn’t pull himself away. He remained there unnoticed for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually, the rov raised his head a third time and asked the meshulach who he was and why he had come to see him. The visitor apologized, told Rav Dovid’l that he had already given him money twice, and said that he was simply watching him learn.
The gaon of Karlin shrugged sadly. “Apparently I am beginning to forget,” he said. But then his face brightened. “Efsher ich fargess, maybe I forget. Ubber duh, but here,” he said pointing to the Gemara, “bin ich frish vi a bochur’l, I am as fresh and sharp as a young yeshiva bochur!”
The meshulach was greatly moved by this comment and, during his subsequent travels, in every town he stopped, when the local rov and lovers of Torah asked him for a good story, he recounted his experience in the study of the beloved Karliner Rov.
Sometime following that incident, Rav Dovid’l passed away. The Chofetz Chaim tracked down the Novardoker meshulach and sent him a message asking him to please come to Radin. The meshulach immediately made his way to Radin.
The Chofetz Chaim explained why he called for him. “Rav Dovid’l iz avek. I want you to say ahesped on him.”
“I would love to. But rebbe,” protested the meshulach, “I didn’t know him. I wasn’t a talmid or even an acquaintance of his. I met him once a little while ago.
“It doesn’t matter,” the Chofetz Chaim replied. “I simply want you to get up and repeat for the public the story you recently shared with me. That will be a powerful hesped.”
The Chofetz Chaim perceived the incredible depth of the comment, the powerful corroboration of this reality, what Torah can do to a man, and the different realm inhabited by those who immerse themselves in it.
Rav Dovid Karliner’s life was Torah. Everything else was irrelevant and easily forgotten.
Zos chukas haTorah adam ki yomus b’ohel. A person must eradicate his afar and adamah. Only then does he really start to live.
Rav Shlomo Kanievsky once told my son Yishai that every time his father, Rav Chaim, finished eating, he would ask his rebbetzin what he ate so that he should know which bracha achronah to make. Food is so not important to him, he doesn’t even remember what he just ate. The only reason he has to know what he has eaten is to be able to recite the proper bracha achronah.
The rebbetzin’s father was the same way. Someone I know once asked Rav Elyashiv a shailah about kashering liver and whether it is necessary to kasher the grates upon which liver has been broiled. Rav Elyashiv told the person to go into the kitchen and ask Rebbetzin Elyashiv how she kashers liver.
When the fellow walked into the kitchen and asked the rebbetzin, she responded, “Ich leb shoin mit Reb Yosef Shalom zechtzig yohr, un mir hoben doh in shtub kein mohl nit gegesen kein leber (I am already living with Reb Yosef Shalom for sixty years in this home and we have never eaten any liver).”
The yungerman went back to Rav Elyashiv and repeated what the rebbetzin had said. Without expressing any emotion or commenting on the fact that he hadn’t known that he had never eaten liver in his home, Rav Elyashiv said to the person, “Oib azoi, darf min paskenen dem shailah.” He discussed the halachic issues with the yungerman, quoting verbatim teshuvos of Acharonim, and he then said that the grates upon which liver is kashered do not need to be kashered prior to being used again.
Such people are the embodiment of the Chazal of being meimis their adam, and adamah, and thus merit being koneh the entire Torah.
These people inhabit a different sphere. The pettiness that entraps us presents no allure to them. The silly machlokes and internecine battles that roil our people don’t touch them, because they are removed from the humdrum of temporal life. They set the example for others to follow and embody the happiness and joy that are reserved for those who are able to achieve spiritual domination of their lives.
Parshas Chukas comes on the heels of the sad saga of Korach to impart to us the importance of adam ki yomus b’ohel as our guidepost for what our ambition should be and where our efforts should lie so that we benefit a life of accomplishment, joy, contentment and fulfillment.