Chazal tell us that when Yaakov Avinu left his parents to go to the home of Lavan, he learnt Torah in the Yeshivos of Shem and Ever for fourteen years. During that time he was so engrossed in his learning that he never once slept! This poses a difficulty - the Torah tells us that for the previous 63 years of his life Yaakov was a ‘yosheiv ohalim’, he spent all his time learning Torah. However, we do not see that he never slept. What happened that enabled Yaakov to attain such a level of mesiras nefesh to forgo sleep in those 14 years that surpassed what he had achieved up till that time? My Rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Bervkovits Shlita answers, that Yaakov knew that he would be faced with great challenges during his time living with the evil Lavan; Lavan would provide great tests to his midos and his spiritual level and he would need to rise to a higher spiritual level in order to be able to withstand being influenced by Lavan. Consequently, he recognized that he had to utilize every available second in these 14 years of Torah learning. There is no doubt that in the previous 63 years of his life, he learnt with great hasmada, but there was a far greater sense of urgency that permeated his learning in the 14 years before he went to live with Lavan. We learn from here that being in a challenging situation can be a great motivating factor in increasing the level of mesiras nefesh in one’s Avodas Hashem.
This can also help explain an interesting halacho brought by the Rambam. During a war, a common tactic is to beseige the enemy, thus starving him of vital supplies. The Rambam writes that a Jewish army may not surround the enemy from all four sides, rather it must leave one side open so that the enemy soldiers have the option of fleeing to safety. This seems like a strange hanhago in the midst of a war! The Meshech Chochma explains that this is indeed a shrewd tactical move; when a person is placed in a highly pressurized situation such as being besieged on four sides he has no option but to find new cochos that can enable him to fight with far greater courage and zeal. Therefore the Torah commands us to leave one side open so that the enemy will not be forced in a situation where it can pose a real threat. This also explains the behavior of the Zealots at the time of the Roman siege of Yerushalayim that led to the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. The inhabitants of Yerushalayim had great food supplies that would enable them to last a very long time even whilst under siege. However, the impatient Zealots wanted to arouse everyone to fight the Romans, so they burnt all the food supplies with the intention of forcing everyone to fight for their lives with a great sense of urgency.
Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita explains that this phenomena led to the incredible mesiras nefesh of Jews who lived through the Communist rule in the Soviet Union. He tells of how Jews that were trying to learn Torah were faced with incredible nisyonos - they would suddenly be visited by KGB agents who would warn them that their jobs were at stake if they would continue in their ‘foolish ways’. If they continued anyway, they would be paid another visit, and this time the safety of their children would be threatened. And yet, amidst such pressure, they were able to find the strength to continue regardless. The following story demonstrates how far their mesiras nefesh went. It was forbidden to perform bris mila on babies, nonetheless many Jews tried to do so at great risk. On one occasion a baby boy had been unwell for the first several months of his life, until finally, aged 10 months the bris was performed. After the bris, the baby’s mother went up to him and kissed him, she then promptly fainted! When she awoke she explained to the bewildered onlookers what had led her to faint. When her baby was born she promised herself that her baby would have bris mila. But she knew that this was no easy task and she feared that she may not have the courage to go through with it. In order to ensure that she would not give up, she swore that she would never kiss or hug her baby until bris was performed! That is why, after waiting so long, she fainted after kissing her little boy! Rav Frand wonders whether we -who are able to practice our religion with ease and in freedom - could contemplate not kissing or hugging our children for so long for the sake of a mitzvo. We do not live with that same sense of urgency that Yaakov Avinu felt as he headed to the house of Lavan, and we cannot relate to the levels of mesiras nefesh that the Jews in the Soviet Union attained.
But how can we tap into the koach of urgency to help improve our own Avodas Hashem? The Mishna in Avos provides a number of answers:“Rebbi Tarfon says; the day is short; the workload is great; the workers our lazy; the reward is great; and the Baal Habayis is pushing.” In this Mishna, Rebbi Tarfon is trying to imbue us with that sense of urgency that will motivate us to learn and grow more. He begins that “the day is short.” Life is short, before we know it, it has passed us by and all of that time is lost forever. Moreover, we never know when our life will end - a recognition of this should certainly help motivate us. Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l notes that the Mishna does not say that our ‘days’ (in the plural) are short, rather, ‘the day.’ He says that this comes to teach us that each individual day has its own function and potential - if a person wastes one part of one day then he has lost that time forever - when a person recognizes that each moment is passing by and will never return he will surely be more careful with his time.
The Mishna continues that, “the work is great“. It is self-evident that every area of Avodas Hashem requires great effort for the workload is endless. This most obviously applies to learning where there is no limit to the depth and breadth that a person can attain. But it also applies to growth - the ladder of Avodas Hamidos is never-ending - there are always more opportunities for character refinement. Moreover, we are also judged as to whether we fulfill our potential - Chazal tell us that there is a heavenly image of each person - this is the image of what he can become if he reaches his full potential. When we proceed to shamayim at the end of our lives, we will be shown that that image and judged as to why we did not fit it.
“The reward is great.” If we were more real of how much reward we receive for mitzvos then our Avoda would drastically improve. Other Mishnayos in Avos discuss this concept: “Be careful with a light mitzvo just as you are with a serious mitzvo, because you do not know the reward for the mitzvos.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the reason one should be extremely careful with even the ‘lighter’ mitzvos is because he has no real conception about how great the reward is even for that. Later in Avos, we are told that, “one moment of peripheral pleasure in Olam Haba is greater than all the pleasure of Olam Hazeh.” Rav Dessler zt”l goes to great lengths to demonstrate how all the pleasure that was ever experienced in Olam Hazeh cannot match one whiff of Olam Haba.
It is understandably difficult to make this concept real but we can at least act in accordance with an intellectual recognition of this. Rav Noach Weinberg Shlita suggests a way of doing so; when a person is tired and ready to head off for bed after the Friday night meal, he should try to motivate himself to learn for an extra five minutes and say to himself - “if I could receive $1000 to learn for another five minutes then I would certainly do so. I realize, at least intellectually, that the reward in Olam Haba for doing so is worth infinitely more than that .”
“The Baal Habayis is pushing.” Hashem is expectant of us to do our job and play our role in perfecting the world. The Gemara says that each person should say that “the world was created for me” - this means that responsibility for the world is placed upon me and I must act with that recognition. Hashem expects a great deal from us and we must produce results.
Baruch Hashem, Jews who live in democratic countries can practice our religion with total freedom. However this can lead to a sense of comfort that can prevent us from tapping into the sense of urgency that is needed to motivate ourselves to strengthen our Avodas Hashem. Gedolim became who they were because they did feel this sense of urgency. Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l was once asked how he became such a great talmid chochom. He answered that he looked at every day of his life as if it could be his last. With such an outlook he was able to push himself to reach incredible heights. May we too find it in ourselves to tap into this tremendous koach.