Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Time to Learn, A Time to Refrain

Parshas Vayigash

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l

Nothing is as valuable as time spent learning Torah. Never should a moment be squandered. Walk around Yerushalayim, you will behold scholars of all shapes and ages, peering into the fine print of their pocket Gemara/Mishnah/Mishnah Berurah, as they wait for the bus. A story is told of a great scholar who made a Siyum HaShas from all the "few minutes" that he had to wait. True, it took him seventeen years, but he finished Shas! Torah is not just a vital element of life; it is life itself.

Indeed, Gedolim are made from those "few minutes." Many years ago some children made a bet concerning my rebbe, HaGaon Rav Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg shlit"a. Whoever could catch him not learning, would win ten cents. Incredibly, no one ever won.

This said, it is with the utmost bewilderment that we view a statement from our parsha. As Yosef prepared to send his brothers back to Eretz Yisrael, he bade them: "Al Tirg'zu Badarech (45:24)." Our Sages interpret this to mean: "Do not involve yourselves with the study of Halacha, lest you become lost on the way (Taanis 10b)."

How could Yosef, the prime recipient of his father's extensive erudition, have commanded his brothers to forsake -- albeit temporarily -- the very source of their lifeblood? Should the brothers actually interrupt their Torah learning, their oxygen?

The answer may be gleaned from Yosef himself. Genuine study of Halacha -- from primary sources to rabbinical conclusions and everything in between -- is the zenith of Torah scholarship. "Hashem has in this world only the four cubits of Halacha (Brachos 8a)." When two scholars sink their teeth into a juicy sugya (topic), all physical existence melts away, as they attain ever higher states of spiritual consciousness. For the true Talmid Chacham, nothing else matters.

A person who becomes so preoccupied while traveling, is more than likely to wander off the beaten path. In ancient times, in the days of highway robbers and pirates, such a straying presented a serious risk. Although "the learning of Torah is equal to all the other mitzvos (Peyah 1:1)," it certainly does not outweigh the universal injunction of "V'chai Bahem," obliging us to do whatever necessary to promote life even at the cost of violating the vast majority of commandments (Yoma 85b). Consequently, Yosef implored his brothers to go easy on the learning on their way home -- Al Tirg'zu Badarech.

In our times, given the increased velocity with which we typically travel, this admonishment assumes heightened significance. In Eretz Yisrael, more than five hundred people die every year in car "accidents." More Israelis have died on the road than in all of our wars combined. Hardly a day passes that we don't hear of yet another tragic collision, leaving people dead, or scarred for life.

If the Torah requires one to interrupt his learning while on the road to prevent danger, how much more should he be meticulous regarding the massive vehicle now under his control. When driving a car, a Jew is subject to the Torah injunction to exercise the greatest caution and alertness he can muster (Devarim 4:9, 15). As the Rambam delineates: "It is a positive commandment to remove any dangerous obstacle, to take precautions from it, and to exercise the utmost care with it, as it says, 'take care and watch yourself (Devarim 4:9).' If he does not remove it, but leaves the dangerous obstacle, he has violated this positive commandment, and transgressed the negative commandment of 'Do not place blood (Devarim 22:8).' (Hilchos Rotzeach v'Shmiras haNefesh 11:4)."

Thus, one who drives recklessly is not only guilty of violating the relevant traffic safety laws, but also of transgressing serious Torah prohibitions. Running a red light could be worse than wolfing down a ham sandwich. Driving in excess of the speed limit, or passing other vehicles in an irresponsible manner is unconscionable.

And finally, it goes without saying that driving while intoxicated is the height of chutzpa. It matters not that the "l'chaim" was for the sake of heaven. Human life is in danger, and that's what counts when the day is done.

In sum: Learn whenever you can, every spare second. But when you are not allowed to be distracted from the matter at hand, focus! Put the Torah gently on the back burner, and recognize that your desire to learn at that particular moment derives from the Yetzer Hara whose sworn goal is to destroy you, literally (Tehillim 37:32). If your desire to learn is so genuine, let's see you continue with that same passion the moment you switch off the ignition.

May Hashem watch our comings and goings, from now and forever!