In the Torah portion this week, we read “This is the Torah: when a person dies in a tent…” [Numbers 19:14] The language is somewhat unusual, because although “Torah” simply means law or instruction, you would expect it to say “this is the law regarding a person” or something similar.
The Talmud tells us that there is an implied lesson here. “Reish Lakish says, how do we know that words of Torah are only established in someone who kills himself over it? Because it says ‘This is the Torah: because a person dies in a tent.'” [Brachos 43b — The word “Ki” can mean “when” or “because.”] Obviously his meaning is not literal, but similar to “working himself to death.”
The implication is that there needs to be total involvement. Not only that the Torah cannot be “established” within a person through casual study, but neither can it be academic, dispassionate. The goal is for the Torah to effect a transformation, making a more G-dly person. When someone told a great sage that he had been through the entire Talmud, the sage replied, “that’s wonderful! And how many times has the Talmud been through you?”
There is another implication here as well. When a person dies, the self is obviously removed. Reish Lakish tells us that sincere devotion to Torah requires that a person abandon selfish interests, the desire for self-glorification, and anything other than the desire to learn and share Torah for its own sake.
When we study, learn and grow — true, we may never learn with the intensity of someone who “kills himself over it,” and may never reach the exalted level of one “in whom the Torah is established.” But nonetheless, we will acquire much more when we push ourselves, involve ourselves far more than we do in academic subjects, and our goals are for the benefit of all, rather than just “what’s in it for me!”