1. The gemarah in massechet Brachot (71b) says, “Once the
    wicked ruling kingdom decreed that Yisrael may not involve
    themselves with Torah. Rebi Akiva came, gathered groups of
    people and publicly taught them Torah… it was but a few days
    later that they caught Rebi Akiva and imprisoned him. When
    they brought out Rebi Akiva to kill him it was the time for the
    reading of the Shema. As they were combing his flesh with iron
    combs, he was accepting the yoke of heaven upon himself. His
    disciples said to him, ‘Our teacher, even now?’ he replied, ‘All my
    life I was troubled by the verse in shema, “(Love Hashem) with all
    your life, which means even if they take your life”, I always asked
    myself, “When will the opportunity come my way to fulfil this?”
    Now that it has come my way should I not fulfil it? …’ (See text
    inside for the entire happening).”
  2. The gemarah in masechet Sanhedrin (13b and 14a) says, “Reb
    Yehuda and Rav Baram said, ‘Remember that man for good; his
    name is Rebi Yehuda Ben Baba, if not for him the laws of fines
    would have been forgotten and anulled from Yisrael. [to pass
    judgement on fines one needs a rav with semicha and the
    gentiles had decreed against giving semicha – see further.] Once
    the wicked kingdom decreed against Yisrael that anyone who
    gives semicha would be killed and whoever would receive
    semicha would be killed … what did Rebi Yehuda Ben Baba
    do?… he gave semicha …to five elders; Rebi Meir, Rebi Yehuda
    [Bar Iloy], Rebi Shimon [Bar Yochai], Rebi Yosi [Bar Chalafta] and
    Rebi Elozor Ben Shamua. Rav Avyah also added Reb Nechemia.
    When their enemies came to know about these. He said to them,
    [Rebi Yehuda Ben Baba to his disciples] ‘My children, run!’. They
    said to him, ‘Rebi what will become of you?’ He replied, ‘Behold I
    am cast before them like a stone which will not be overturned.’
    They said to him, [the gentiles] ‘Move from there! Until they
    stabbed him with three hundred iron spears and made him like
    a sieve. [Meaning that they gave him a terrible death].”
  3. The gemarah in massechet Avodah Zarah (18:1) explains that
    at the time when the gentiles decreed forbidding Torah study,
    Rebi Chanina Ben Tradyon was still busy learning Torah and
    gathering groups in public to learn Torah whilst holding a Torah
    scroll against his chest. The gentiles came along and burned
  4. Even though generally to save a persons life takes priority
    over most other things, however at a time of a decree against
    performing mitzvot the law is different. Look carefully at Yoreh
    Deah (127) for details on this topic, when saving a life takes
    precedence and when not, there is no place to elaborate further.
  5. In any case, we see from all these extracts that our teachers,
    the Tanaim gave up their lives for the mitzvah of teaching Torah
    to the congregation. We see from this the magnitude of the
    importance of Torah study, and how a person is commanded to
    give up on so many things if they are at the expense of his Torah
    study. If world leaders gave up their very lives in order to teach
    Torah, surely there are many things that we can surrender order
    to study Torah.
  6. In massechet Shabbat (83b) we see, “Raish Lokish said, ‘The
    words of Torah find permanence only in one who kills himself
    over them, as the verse says, “This is the law when a person dies
    in a tent”. It is obvious here that the intention here is not that a
    person kill himself in order to learn Torah, since if he would be
    dead, how could he learn?! More than that, the mitzvah of
    preserving a human life is more important. [The examples
    brought above were at a time of decree, as mentioned there.]
    Instead the intention of the gemarah with these stories is to
    show that there are very many things which are precious to a
    person, like for example if a person has a very strong leaning to
    a certain profession, or a very great desire to become monetarily
    wealthy, and he feels in his heart that it is so hard for him to
    give up on his desires, as if he were nearly to die because of it.
    This is exactly what the gemarah speaks about here, that the
    true way to acquire Torah is to forgo these desires in order to
    learn Torah. This is the way to attain Torah. The above examples
    of desires are of things which touch very much on the future of a
    person. The same also applies to smaller things. If someone is in
    doubt how to spend the next few hours, whether to spend the
    time learning Torah or to go and converse about an incident
    that happened which very much interests him, or any other
    thing which will waste his time from learning, he may feel that it
    is very hard for him to give up this thing. Here lays the mitzvah
    mentioned in the gemarah, that by breaking this desire and
    going to learn, against his own strong will, he suffers a partial
    aspect of death, he kills that desire. This is one of the
    acquisitions of Torah.
  7. The gemarah implies more here. In reality Torah study
    necessitates a person to forgo even his most basic necessities.
    We see this in massechet Avot, “That is the way of the Torah,
    you eat bread and salt and you drink a set measure of water, you
    sleep on the floor and you labor in Torah. If you do so, you are
    fortunate and it is good for you. You are fortunate in this world
    and it will be good for you in the next world.” The reality is
    however that it is not generally necessary to sacrifice one’s
    absolute bare necessities in order to learn Torah. We therefore
    brought present day examples which are more widespread
    nowadays. These are also included in the intention of the
    gemarah. Still a person still has to know that if Hashem forbid,
    things turn around, and a test comes, in order to learn Torah he
    may have to forgo even basic necessities. He may even have to
    live in the very restricted way, described in the mishna in
    massechet Avot. He should strengthen himself to stand as firm
    as a flint stone and as an iron pillar and not to abandon Torah,
    as Chazal say, “One (thing achieved) with difficulty is better than
    a hundred without difficulty.”
  8. The gemarah Shabbat (83b) says further, “R’ Yonatan would
    say, ‘A person should never hold himself back from going to the
    Bet Midrash or from learning words of Torah, even at the time of
    one’s death, as the verse says, “This is the law of a person who
    dies in a tent”, even at the time of death one should be busy
    with Torah.” In general, a person’s challenge in Torah study is
    not at the time of his death, rather whilst he is still alive. Of
    course from the words of the gemarah regarding death one must
    take a lesson for the many hours which could be used for Torah
    study. Sometimes it is difficult for a person to imagine using his
    free time for Torah, and it can be a very remote idea to spend
    spare hours in the Bet Midrash, either because of his personal
    situation, or because of the individual details of that particular
    time. Nevertheless from the words of the gemarah we see that
    one is still obligated to learn; since if even at the time of death a
    person should not hold himself back from going to the Bet
    Midrash and from busying himself with Torah, how much more
    so all the times when a person has minor hindrances from
    learning, they are obviously of a much lesser degree.