Parashat Chukat begins with the laws of the para aduma – the red heifer that was burned to produce ashes which were used to purify people and objects that had become tamei (impure) as a result of an encounter with a human corpse. The Torah then proceeds to outline the basic principles of tum’at meit, the means by which a person or object contracts impurity through contact with a dead body. It introduces the concept of tum’at ohel, whereby the presence of a human corpse brings impurity to everything under the same roof as the corpse. The Torah begins this discussion by stating, “Zot ha-torah adam ki yamut be-ohel”- “This is the law when a person dies in a tent…” (19:14).
The Gemara (Shabbat 83b) cites the famous remark of Reish Lakish, taking this verse out of context and interpreting it to mean, “The words of Torah are retained only in one who kills himself for it.” The phrase “zot ha-Torah,” in Reish Lakish’s reading, means not “this is the law,” but rather, “This is the way Torah is retained.” The verse explains that one is able to master the immense corpus of Torah literature only if “ki yamut be-ohel” – if he “kills himself” in the “tent” of Torah study, applying himself with diligence and intensity in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
A number of writers noted that according to Reish Lakish’s homiletical reading of this verse, acquiring Torah scholarship demands not just diligent study, but diligent study in a “tent” – a term generally understood as an allusion to houses of study. It appears that Reish Lakish requires not simply intensive, disciplined engagement in Torah, but also that one learn in a “tent” with other scholars, rather than studying alone. (This point is made by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, in Sichot Mussar.)
The explanation might lie in the comparison implicitly drawn by Reish Lakish between the experience of Torah study and the halakhic phenomenon of tum’at meit. By rereading this verse as an allusion to the diligent study of Torah, Reish Lakish likely found some point of connection between the plain meaning of the verse, which speaks of the tum’a transmitted by a corpse to everything under the same roof, and devotion to learning. The concept of tum’at ohel is that a source of tum’a affects its surroundings. The presence of a corpse in a building impacts the people and even the objects in that building, causing them all to become impure. Similarly, Reish Lakish teaches, in order to acquire Torah scholarship, one must apply himself diligently “in a tent,” in the company of other students and scholars. Scholarship requires not only diligence and discipline, but also immersing oneself in a scholarly environment. Just as impurity spreads to everybody in the building, so does the positive energy of serious, devoted study spread to one’s surroundings.
If so, then Reish Lakish here emphasizes the importance not only of diligent study per se, but also of placing oneself in a “tent” – an environment – that encourages intellectual and spiritual growth, and motivates a person to realize his full potential in the study of Torah.