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Parshas Devarim (5772)

True Olympic Heroes

I don’t know about you … but I am soooooo excited!!! I simply can’t wait for the start of the main event we have all been waiting for and talking about for so long. Very soon, more than 90,000 spectators will pack into a huge stadium to watch all those amazing “superstars” who have worked incredibly hard and with such endurance and tenacity – some for many years – just to get to this coveted place.

That’s right ... and it all takes place this coming Wednesday evening, August 1st, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, home of the New York Jets and the New York Giants, where over 90,000 Jews will gather together for the 12th Siyum HaShas, to celebrate the accomplishments of those true “Olympic” heroes who managed to complete the study of the entire Talmud, day in day out, over the course of 7˝ years.

[I threw you for a loop there, didn’t I?]

Siyum HaShas (lit. "completion of the Six Orders [of the Mishnah and Talmud]") is the celebration of the completion of the Daf Yomi (a page a day of Talmud) program, a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of learning the main text of the Oral Torah along with its commentaries, in which each of the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud are covered in sequence.

The idea of Jews in all parts of the world studying the same Daf each day, with the goal of completing the entire Talmud, was originally conceived by Rabbi Meir Shapiro ZT”L, then Rabbi of Sanok, Poland, and future Chief Rabbi of Lublin and Rosh Yeshivah (Dean) of the famous Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.

The first Daf Yomi cycle began on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in September 1923; the twelfth cycle will conclude this August. The Siyum HaShas marks both the end of the previous cycle and the beginning of the next, and is characterized by inspiring speeches and rousing singing and dancing.

The Daf Yomi can be studied alone, with a chavrusa (study partner), in a daily shiur (class) led by a rabbi or teacher, via telephone, CD-ROM, or audio and online resources. Typically, Daf Yomi classes are held in synagogues, yeshivas, and offices. They also take place in the United States Senate, Wall Street board rooms, and on the Long Island Rail Road, in the last car of two commuter trains departing Far Rockaway at 7:51 a.m. and 8:15 a.m., respectively, for Manhattan. Daf Yomi classes are piped into the in-flight sound system of all El Al flights. A typical Daf Yomi class lasts one hour. Participants usually study the text together with the commentary of Rashi. [To learn more about the Siyum HaShas and the Daf Yomi, click on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siyum_HaShas]

I guess you’re probably wondering what’s so “heroic” about Jews studying the Talmud anyway? I mean, it’s not like these people are doing the triathlon or the four-minute mile or something incredible like that!

I would respond like this: First of all, anyone who commits to doing anything consistently – and follows through on his commitment for 7˝ straight weeks or months, let alone 7˝ years (!), is a hero in my books.

Second, if you think that the pole vault or the long jump is difficult, you should try a page of Talmud! Some of the greatest minds in history – including the likes of Rashi, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon etc. (and apparently most of the people of South Korea these days as well) – have spent the better part of their lives plumbing the depths of this great repository of Torah law, ethics, values and esoteric teachings.

While the various competitive sports this summer in London may challenge the physical strength, ability and stamina of the Olympic athletes, the study of Talmud challenges the mind. Many will attempt to start the new cycle of Daf Yomi this August, and just as many will fall away soon after they start. Such is the nature of Talmudic study – its deep, penetrating, hair-splitting Halachic analysis requires plenty of time and mental energy, and it is not for the faint of heart. [Thankfully, the Artscroll Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud with English translation by Mesorah Publications is available at your local bookstore and now as an app for your smartphone … which makes navigating through the Talmud much easier, even for a relative beginner. Check it out at: http://www.artscroll.com/artscrollapp.html.]

Another reason why Talmudic study is so important and why, to my mind, those who study it daily are true Jewish heroes, has to do with the very purpose of our existence. As Rabbi Mordechai Becher writes in his wonderful book Gateway to Judaism: The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life (Shaar Press Publications):

According to Jewish belief, the purpose of existence is for human beings to create a relationship with G-d.…We develop compatibility with G-d by imitating His actions and traits. Through the performance of the commandments of the Torah we learn to act as G-d does; by improving our character traits we become similar to G-d in the realm of character.…Full compatibility can only be achieved, however, when the intellect is also developed appropriately, when we learn to think like G-d….The study of Torah [and especially the Talmud – dz] is one of the primary means available to humanity to approach the “Mind” of the Creator and His vision.

So we see that the Talmud is a pretty important part of Jewish life, and is certainly worth studying daily – even if it doesn’t land you on a podium with a gold medal around your neck.

I must admit that although I am very excited about the upcoming Siyum HaShas celebrations worldwide (in addition to the massive gathering at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, other celebrations elsewhere in the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe, and Australia are expected to attract hundreds of thousands), a part of me is saddened by what I see as the “tragic irony” of the Daf Yomi program and the Siyum HaShas.

You see, one of the lofty goals that Rabbi Meir Shapiro hoped to achieve with the institution of the Daf Yomi was the unity of the entire Jewish people. As he once said in a speech he gave in August 1923:

“What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes Gemara Berachos [the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud] under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael [Israel] to America, and each day he learns the Daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a Beis Medrash [study hall] in New York and finds Jews learning the very same Daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the Beis Medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same Daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”

Yet today, only 89 years later, the majority of Jews have never even heard of the Talmud, let alone the Daf Yomi program! While it is certain that every Jew on the planet knows about this Friday night’s gathering of over 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, how many Jews even have a clue that just five days later over 90,000 mostly Orthodox Jews will be gathering at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the Siyum HaShas??

Where are all these Jews? Why are they not celebrating along with the rest of their brothers and sisters at MetLife Stadium and the other venues worldwide?? The Talmud doesn’t just belong to the Orthodox – it is the heritage of the entire Jewish nation!

How tragic that we, the Jewish people, have splintered to such an extent that a near 100,000 Jews can get together for a Torah celebration and the majority of the rest of the Jewish people will not even be aware of it!

May G-d help us unite as one people and one happy family – like we used to be in the good old days - so that we can celebrate all of us together the coming of the Messiah. Amen.

HAVE A MEANINGFUL FAST!

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