Rav Mordechai Gifter worked very hard to remember the Torah he learned. As he aged, he was stricken with an illness affecting his memory. This troubled him terribly. “How will I be able to answer the questions I’ll be asked by the Heavenly Tribunal when I come to heaven?” he would lament. Rav Gifter went to a specialist and expressed his anguish for not being able to recall his Torah learning. The doctor said, “There are two parts of the brain: one for retaining information and one for recalling the information. The recall part of your brain is compromised, but you still retain all the information. When you get to heaven, you won’t have this physical challenge and you will be able to recall all that you learned!” Rav Gifter told the doctor, “You have comforted me.”
Many of us feel similarly when we learn Torah, especially after spending a lengthy time delving into a topic we still do not comprehend. We sometimes wonder, “What am I accomplishing? I don’t understand the material, let alone remember it!”
This feeling of working and not accomplishing can be depressing. I once read a story about a Jew who was sentenced to back-breaking labor in Siberia. His job was to push a heavy piece of wood outside a millhouse all day long in subzero temperatures. He was told his labor turned a millstone in the millhouse, grinding grain into flour. For 30 years he worked tirelessly. One day, the guard came and told him, “Good news. Your time in Siberia is up. You are being released.” He was so excited! The guard escorted him through the millhouse, but the man saw no trace of grain. “Where is all the grain? Where are all the piles of flour?” asked the man incredulously. The guard said, “This is Siberia. There is no grain here! We just make people work for no reason to torture them.” Upon hearing that his 30 years of labor produced nothing, the man collapsed on the floor. The thought of all those years of fruitless labor was too much to bear.
Laboring in Torah is different. Even if we don’t fully comprehend the Torah we learn, we are still accomplishing tremendously! This lesson is learned from Parshas Chukas. “Zos haTorah adam ki yamus b’ohel, this is the law about a person who dies in a tent.” The Gemara Brachos provides a novel interpretation to this verse. The Torah is giving us a formula on how one needs to learn Torah. Zos haTorah—this is the way to learn Torah. Adam ki yamus b’ohel—a person needs to kill himself (in the sense of pushing himself tirelessly) to understand and learn the Torah. It’s back-breaking labor! The Gemara is sharing a great secret. If we toil in Torah, even without understanding it fully, our extreme effort allows us to “acquire” the Torah we are working on. What counts is the effort we put in!
The parsha starts off with the same word, “zos.” “Zos chukas haTorah”—this is the law of the Torah. The word chok means a law without a rationale. Chok also means to etch or to inscribe.
We can thus say that every time we exert ourselves in Torah, even if we do not understand the reasoning, we are etching the Torah deeper and deeper into ourselves, as every effort makes an impression.
The Chofetz Chaim echoes this sentiment. He says that whenever we learn a topic that we don’t understand fully, when we come to the yeshiva in heaven our limitations will be gone and we’ll be able to fully grasp what we tried to learn down here.
This is the profound lesson of zos chukas haTorah. The world around us operates on the concept of “show me the money!” Results. Facts on the ground. No one cares about the time and effort it took you. Torah is not like that at all. Hashem treasures every minute you spend; every moment you sacrifice for His Torah. Your effort…is everything! It helps complete your soul’s mission.
Ultimately, if we put in the effort that we can, Hashem will give us maximum credit for our efforts! But the true reward for our efforts in learning Torah is the resulting closeness we feel with our Creator.