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Devarim: Self-Sacrifice for the Torah

Published on Thursday September 16th, 2021

Devarim, 1:9: I (Moshe) said to you at that time, saying: ‘I cannot carry you alone’.

Devarim, 1:13-14: Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding and well known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them as your heads.  And you answered me and said, ‘The thing that you have proposed to do is good’.

Rashi, Devarim, 1:14: sv. And you answered me: You decided the matter according to your own pleasure.  You should have answered: ‘Our teacher Moshe, from who is it pleasant to learn – from you or your students?! Is it not from you who suffered over it?!...”

Parshas Devarim begins with a series of rebukes from Moshe Rabbeinu.  One of them involves the incident when Yisro suggested that other people help relieve Moshe’s burden of teaching the people, and how the people willingly accepted his suggestion.  Moshe chastised them that they should have demanded that they only learn from him – Rashi explains that Moshe’s maaleh (advantage) over everyone else was that he suffered (mistaer) over the Torah.  The first question that must be asked is what kind of suffering does Rashi refer to?

It seems there are two possible interpretations of this term; the first is discussed by Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l.  He asks why Rashi did not simply say that they should have wanted Moshe to teach them because he was more learned than everyone else  – what is the necessity of the added point that he suffered over the Torah?  He answers that sometimes a less learned person can be a more effective teacher than one more learned than himself, therefore simply being more learned would not have been a valid reason why they should have only wanted to learn from Moshe.  The more significant factor is the degree to which the person exerted himself in order to attain complete clarity in his learning.   Thus, Rav Feinstein understands that the suffering here means that Moshe worked incredibly hard with mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) to attain clarity in the Torah that he learned.[1]  Because he reached such a high level of clarity through his intense efforts, the people should have desired to have learnt only from him.

Maran HaRav Shteinman shlita, explains the suffering that Moshe Rabbeinu endured in a different way.  He focuses on the forty days that Moshe spent on Har Sinai being taught the Torah.  In that time he did not eat or drink – Rav Shteinman writes that we learn from Rashi that even though HaShem miraculously gave him the ability to survive so long without food and water, nonetheless he did feel the hunger and discomfort that normally accompanies fasting.  Thus the reason that the people should have wanted to learn directly from Moshe was that he endured suffering in the process of his Torah learning.[2]  According to Rav Shteinman, why does the fact that he endured physical discomfort explain why they should have desired to learn only from him?[3]  It seems that the answer is that the fact that Moshe was prepared to experience physical discomfort in the process of learning Torah demonstrated his great dedication to grasping the true understanding of Torah.  Because he went through more mesiras nefesh than everyone else, it can likewise be presumed that he exerted himself in order to gain clarity so it was only correct to want to learn from him alone.

We learn from Rav Shteinman that there is great value to Torah learnt in difficult situations.[4]  Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg zt”l placed great emphasis on the value of such effort.  He would say that many students would only learn if everything was ‘just right’ – they needed comfortable rooms, good air conditioning and so on, and if everything wasn’t right then they couldn’t learn.  The outstanding students were the ones who would function in all circumstances.[5]  He explained that this fulfills the Mishna in Avos; “Such is the way of Torah; bread in salt shall you eat, water in measure you shall drink, and on the earth you shall sleep.”[6]  This doesn’t mean that a person must live like this in order to learn, but that he must be able to learn even in such adverse circumstances.  As Rav Scheinberg stated, only a person on that level can attain true greatness in Torah.  He added that the reward for such learning was extremely great.  He quoted Rav Yerucham Levovits zt”l that if a person trudges through the mud to learn, he will bring that mud with him to Gan Eden at the time of his death, and he will receive reward for the mud that dirtied his boots, as well as the aggravation it caused him.[7]

Rav Scheinberg taught this idea through his own example in addition to his teachings.  When his yeshiva, Torah Ore, was in Bensonhurst, there were times in the summer when it was scorching hot and the students would struggle to continue learning (there were no fans, let alone air conditioning!).  Yet they would see him with his tefillin on his head, his many layers of tzitsis, and in his kapota, and yet he was learning with tremendous energy.

It would seem that this does not only apply to men and their Torah learning, but also to women in their own spiritual efforts in learning and prayer.  Moreover, the mesiras nefesh that a woman endures to enable her husband and children to learn is surely included in this lesson and the harder it is, the greater their reward.  May we all merit to learn from the examples and the lessons of our Gedolim and apply these lessons to our own lives.

[1] Darash Moshe, Devarim, 1:14.

[2] Ayeles Hashachar, Devarim, 1:14.

[3] According to Rav Feinstein’s explanation this is not a problem – since the pain Rashi refers to is his extra efforts to attain clarity, this explains why Moshe had the clearest understanding of Torah.

[4] It should be noted that the Mitzvah to learn Torah is supposed to be pleasurable, as we say in birchas HaTorah: ‘May Your Torah be sweet, HaShem, Our G-d, in our mouths..’  The idea expressed above is no contradiction to this – indeed someone who finds joy in his learning will be more able to overcome external difficulties.

[5] Rabbi Yechiel Spero, Rav Scheinberg, p.177.

[6] Avot, 6:4.

[7] Rav Scheinberg, p.180.

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