One of the sections in this week’s parshah , Vaes’chanan , is the Shema. It delineates some of the most fundamental concepts of Judaism, such as the unity of HaShem , the mitzvah to love G‑d, the mitzvah to study Torah, and teach it to our children.

When should you be occupied with Torah study? The verse mentions four states, or different times: When you are sitting at home; when you’re going on your way; when you lie down; and when you rise up. This is the simple, conventional explanation of the words. The verse therefore talks about a person’s day — there is a certain amount of time which one spends sitting at home. For most of us this is usually in the evening, or from early evening until bedtime. You return from your day at work, and you stay at home. “Going on your way” is usually what people do during the day, going to work, when at work, and coming home from work. “When you lie down,” — this is obviously at night, at the end of the day, and “when you rise up” is obviously in the morning, the beginning of the day. The plain meaning of the text is thus that Torah is not to be relegated to one small part of your day, such as when you’re sitting in your house. It has to permeate your entire day, from the moment you arise, until the moment you go to sleep.

When the Haskalah Movement (the 18th-19th century intellectual movement among Central and East European Jews, which aimed to “modernize” Jews and Judaism by encouraging the adoption of secular European culture) swept through the Jewish world, a certain attitude to Judaism became prevalent: “Be a Jew at home, if you so wish, but a mensch — respectable person — in the streets.” If you want to be a frum Jew, that’s for the house. With your home, with your family, put on your yarmulke , learn Torah, do mitzvos. But when you go out into the world, to your job, be a mensch. You don’t have to flaunt your Yiddishkeit in front of gentiles, in front of other people. But this is diametrically opposed to what it says in the Shema. “When you go out on your way, don’t forget about Torah. Take your Torah in your pocket book. Make sure that Torah is with you wherever you go, on your travels, in your business.”

One of the most beautiful sights I will always remember from my childhood is a certain Lubavitcher Jewish storekeeper that we had in my neighborhood. When there were no customers he would take out a sefer. No customers? You don’t read the daily paper or just twiddle your fingers. You could learn a real wealth of things in the ten minute gaps between customers. Torah is part of a Jew wherever you are.

The saintly Rebbe Rayatz, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, offered another very insightful cosmic explanation of this verse. He points out that as regards the activity of learning Torah, there are several levels and there are several stages. At every stage of a person’s existence Torah is part of it. “When you are sitting at home” is the status of the soul above, prior to its descent below into this physical, secular world. There, in Gan Eden , it sits before G‑d and learns Torah constantly.

Alternatively, the verse could be interpreted as the status of a person in the womb, which may also be called, “sitting at home.” When a woman is pregnant, the Gemara tells us, the child in the womb is taught the entire Torah. Moreover, “a candle is kindled above its head, and it sees from one end of the world to the other.” The verse thus refers to the period of a person’s life before he is born when he is wholly and totally occupied with learning Torah.

The next stage, “when you’re going on your way,” refers to the time when the soul descends from the world above to the world below, from level to level, until it enters a physical body in this lowly world. Here, through Torah study in this world, it learns how to progress (walk) in spiritual matters, and even in material matters when they are for the sake of Heaven. This is not really the natural way of the soul, whose real habitat is above. When the soul is born into a body, it has to learn to deal with a new world, and nevertheless remain faithful to HaShem. This is the mission of the soul here in this world.

As the soul leaves its heavenly abode, and is born in the earthly sphere, it must go through a number of descents. At each level it is taught the Torah as appropriate to that level. Once the child is born in this world, you must start teaching him kamatz alefoh ; Bereishis barah Elokim — “In the beginning G‑d created…” That’s a much lower level than it was capable of learning before it was born. So the Torah then has to be adapted to the soul in a body. But the end result of the soul’s descent into this world, where it learns the Torah of this world and does the physical mitzvos , is that the soul achieves an ascent to beyond the level where it stood prior to its descent into this world. The descent is for the sake of a much greater ascent.

The next stage is “when you lie down.” This is the day on which a person’s soul is recalled to its supernal realm, when he lies down in his grave. Even at that time, he continues to “study” Torah, as it states explicitly in Pirkei Avos (6:9): Even when a person is in his grave, awaiting the Resurrection of the Dead, all of the Torah that he learned in his lifetime guards him and watches over him.

When a person dies, as you all know, nothing material that he acquired in this world goes with him. His house, his car, he leaves it all behind. Nothing that he amassed in his earthly existence goes into the grave. But his Torah and his good deeds do accompany him.

Perhaps some of you have read these stories about the graves of saintly tzaddikim which, for some reason, had to be moved. There are several recorded incidents of bodies which were exhumed and were found to be intact tens and even hundreds of years after their passing.

I heard something very unusual in that line. Apparently when the Germans came to Lyzhansk, in Poland, they heard rumors that Jews used to bury gold and silver in their graves. They went to the grave of Reb Elimelech of Lyzhansk, a famous tzaddik, and they opened it up. When they opened it up they found inside a little man with a brown beard, who looked like he was sleeping. In terror, they dropped their shovels and fled. That night, Jews from the town went to the cemetery in order to cover up the exposed grave. There they saw the body of Rabbi Elimelech, completely untouched, without a spot of decomposition. A person who was a Torah Yid in his life, remains one even in his grave. Elsewhere, the Gemara adds that when someone learns the teachings of a Tzaddik , the lips of the body in the grave whisper the words of Torah together with the person learning them.

Besides the fact that the body that is in the kever (grave) is guarded and protected by the Torah that a person learned in his lifetime, the soul meanwhile is in heaven learning Torah.

The next stage — “And when you rise up” — obviously refers to the era of the Resurrection of the Dead. This too, is one of the fundamentals of our faith. Every Jew, no matter how long he’s been in his grave, will awaken with the Resurrection at the time of Mashiach. Then, the Torah will again be on a totally different level. There won’t be all of the limitations that make it so difficult for us now to learn Torah. Why is it so hard for us to learn Torah now? Because we have so many other things on our minds. A man has parnassah; a woman, if she can run out Monday morning for an hour, she feels so great that she got in a little shiur. But how can we sit all day and learn Torah? We just don’t have the time or the ability or there’s so much else that’s distracting us. However, when Mashiach comes, all of these other things that are weighing us down and preventing us from truly concentrating — even just the idea of physical tiredness and all the other things that are hindrances to true Torah learning, will not be problems in the times of the Mashiach. Besides the fact that when Mashiach comes, the Midrash states that “a new Torah will come forth from Me,” which means that all of the secrets of the Torah which had been hidden for all the years of exile will be revealed. In other words, not only will we be different, but the Torah itself will be of a much, much deeper and clearer and higher quality than anyone has ever known. May it be speedily in our days.

Next time you say Shema you can think of this explanation as well!