In Judaism there’s much emphasis on life and fulfilling one’s potential. There’s a decree of the Torah that states that when one comes in contact with a corpse, there’s a spiritual contamination that takes place and a seven day process on how to return to one’s original state. A dead body represents a being that can’t improve or grow spiritually, or make free will decisions. As Jews we spend our entire lives choosing; sometimes we make the right choice concerning food, relationships, career, and other matters and sometimes we make the wrong choice.
The main aspect of life is the ability to choose. A dead person is the opposite and therefore the spiritual contamination caused by being in the presence of a lifeless body is so great that even if a person is under the same roof as the dead person, s/he becomes ritually impure. The verse below is the source for this idea:
This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent, all who come into the tent and everything in the tent shall be impure for seven days. [19:14]
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish gives a homiletic interpretation of this verse and says that it’s a “hint” (remez) to the nature of Torah study. He says, “How do we know that words of Torah are only well-established within one who kills himself over them? Because it says, ‘this is the Torah: a man who dies in a tent…'” It seems that if a Jew truly wants to acquire Torah knowledge, he has to ‘kill’ himself for it.
This seems to be a contradiction because the Torah also instructs us to live by its words (Levitcus 18:5–V’chai bahem – “and live by them.”
The Torah gives life, not death. How can the Torah insist that we “kill ourselves” over it and yet tell us to “live by them” (the commandments). We can resolve this paradox with a parable.
There was once a businessman who was constantly approached by potential customers, not only from his city but from the entire region. His business kept him occupied day and night and he only rarely found time for himself. As he grew older, gray became the predominant color of his hair, his health started to decline, and he suddenly found himself thinking about his own mortality and decided to prepare to enter the World to Come.
One day he went to synagogue early, prayed with the congregation, and then sat down to study for a few hours before going to work. When he showed up to work three hours late, the store was packed with customers and his wife questioned the delay. He answered that he had been busy, and was thus unavoidably delayed.
The next day, when he again failed to appear, his wife went herself to see what he was doing. Finding him with an open book, she began to shout at him. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Have you lost your mind? The store is filled with customers! I can’t handle it alone!”
Her husband replied, “my dear wife: if the Death came knocking and my time to go had come, would you say that I simply didn’t have the free time to die just yet, and due to the fact that the store is full of customers, you would appreciate it if Death came knocking at some later date please? From now on imagine that during these hours it is as if I am ‘dead,’ and unavailable – will you mind if I am two hours late?” The same way that spouses allow each other time off with friends (girls night out), Sunday golfing, visiting elder parents when it’s not feasible for the entire family to go and therefore one spouse is left with the entire responsibility to watch the children, heavy business travel, and so many other things, so too in a marriage each should understand the need for the other to set asides times for learning Torah-i.e., learning the beauty of living life as a Jew. Only by understanding Judaism can one view it as something enjoyable rather than as a burden
The Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) uses this parable to explain the meaning of the teaching we mentioned earlier from the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. A person who truly wishes to learn and grow spiritually must dedicate a certain amount of time for learning. During that time, he is off-limits to regular distractions. We make a choice daily of how we will spend the next 24 hours. Our ‘dead time’ will enable us to become better wives and husbands, better parents and children; it will enable us to live our potential; that’s what Torah study does. If we don’t become ‘dead’ to the world-no electronic devices or appointments to disturb us-for some period of time each week, we ultimately will become dead to our own potential and spirituality. It seems like a paradox but if we think about this concept we will realize that in order to live life your life to the fullest, you have to ‘die’ on a regular basis. Usually death is a morbid topic but in this case it’s actually joyful and positive because it enables us to enrich ourselves and take lessons from the great Jewish wellspring of wisdom and good living called the Torah and fulfill what we were placed on this earth for. Try “dying” today, it’s a sure guarantee that you will live better tomorrow. Your time is yours and only you can decide to set aside some of it for Jewish endeavors. If not now, when?