The Torah in Parashat Chukat introduces the law of tum’at ohel, which confers a status of tum’a (impurity) upon people and utensils situated under the same roof as a human corpse. This law is introduced by the Torah with the verse, “Zot ha-Torah adam ki yamut be-ohel” – “This is the law concerning a person who dies in a tent.” In a famous Aggadic passage, the Gemara (Berakhot 63b) interprets this verse to mean, “This is the way Torah is studied: a man dies in a tent.” The Gemara establishes on the basis of this reading that “ein divrei Torah mitkayemin ela be-mi she-meimit atzmo aleha” – “Words of Torah are sustained only in one who kills himself over it.” The lesson being conveyed is that who seeks to acquire Torah scholarship must be prepared to “kill himself” – to exert a great deal of hard work and effort, and sacrifice convenience and leisure, for the sake of studying.
We might wonder whether perhaps Chazal found some connection between this vitally important message and the context of this verse – the Torah’s discussion of tum’at ohel. Did the Gemara superimpose an Aggadic reading on a verse that extracts it entirely from its context, or is the message of intensive effort in Torah study somehow related to the status of impurity generated by a human corpse?
Possibly, Chazal here draw a comparison between the significant halakhic impact of a corpse and the influence wielded by one who “kills himself” in the pursuit of Torah study. A lifeless body affects all people and utensils in the building, conferring upon them a status of tum’a which requires a weeklong process of purification that includes sprinkling of purifying waters. Although the corpse is still, silent and motionless, it wields influence, as it were. The Gemara perhaps teaches us that one who devotes time and energy to the pursuit of Torah knowledge, rather than to the pursuit of wealth, notoriety or prestige, wields a great deal of influence. Like a corpse, he does not make “noise,” he does not make any attempt to draw attention to himself, but his presence has a considerable impact and influence. People in the vicinity of a sincere, humble, diligent Torah scholar gain inspiration and are uplifted and encouraged to reach higher. Just as a corpse spreads tum’a, a genuinely devoted Torah scholar spreads inspiration and has a significant impact upon his surroundings.
However, the law of tum’at ohel is presented amidst the Torah’s broader discussion of purification, the means by which one divests himself of his status of tum’a. Although a human corpse spreads tum’a, this status is not permanent, and can be erased. The same is true of the positive influence exerted by devoted scholars of Torah. Although we can gain inspiration and encouragement from the great people with whom we come in contact, this effect does not necessarily last. Like tum’a, inspiration is not permanent. As much as we have to gain from being in the presence of outstanding religious figures, ultimately, there is no substitute for sustained hard work and effort to continually grow and improve. Even as we look to be inspired by the people around us, we must realize that their influence will wane without a constant, consistent and concentrated effort to grow each day of our lives.