What the rest of us can learn from the lomdei hadaf
Can there be any Orthodox male on the planet who did not finish the 12th daf yomi cycle and not think, at least briefly, about starting the new cycle? For me, that moment came last Shabbos morning during the siyum at one of the shuls in which I daven regularly. The participants in the daf yomi shiur divided up the hadran, and one of them choked up when it came his turn. The friend in question is not someone whom I would have thought of as the emotional type. His normal visage is that of a dispassionate judge, which indeed he was until his recent retirement from the bench.
I have no idea exactly what thoughts went through his head at that moment. But I imagine that the emotions welling up included a taste of Chazal’s description of the righteous in the World-to-Come: The yetzer hara will appear to them as a tall mountain, and they will be overcome by the realization that they conquered such a high peak.
And that feeling is more than justified. Despite the admonition of one of the roshei yeshiva at the largest Jerusalem-wide siyum I attended that no one should imagine that he had actually “learned” Shas through his participation in a daf yomi shiur, the completion of the cycle in any form is an immense achievement. (Actually, I doubt that many of those who faithfully attend a daf yomi shiur are under great illusions about their mastery of the material.)
Doing anything — even making it to every minyan — for seven and a half years straight is a major achievement. The audience at the Jerusalemsiyum broke into spontaneous applause when footage was shown of a daf yomi shiur at a major Israeli air force base, as they contemplated the stress under which those attending the shiur live.
Most of us can push ourselves in various ways for short spurts. But to commit and maintain that commitment day in and day out is much, much harder. The Alter of Slabodka used to ask which of the bochurim went to hear the visiting maggid and were moved to tears. Such bochurim were suspect in his eyes: If they were easily moved to tears they were equally subject to being moved to laughter and leitzanus, he felt. Only changes — even small ones — maintained over time were of value in his eyes, because only such changes are fully internalized.
A commitment to a daily routine changes a person; it makes that to which he has committed himself part of him. No, attending a daf yomi shiur does not make one a lamdan. Nor will the intricacies of the Gemara’s shakla v’taryeh be fully comprehended, much less remembered, without many hours of daily commitment. But the person who spends an hour or two on the daf for 2,711 consecutive days has attached himself to the Tannaim and Amoraim in a profound way. He has made his daily meeting with them the center point of his day, the one commitment that allows no exceptions. And through that commitment he is a different person.
People who have maintained such a commitment obligate the rest of us. As I surveyed those celebrating the completion of the cycle in the neighboring shul, I could not help feeling a bit ashamed. After all, I had the opportunity to learn in Kollel for many years, which they never had. There is nothing about my life that would make it self-evidently harder for me to complete the daf (unless it is the experience of knowing what it is like to spend days and weeks on what is completed in an hour or two.) And though I also have a daily shiur that is very precious to me, the pace is hardly so relentless that an occasional absence will require immense effort to catch up. I have not pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, as I imagine every daf yomi learner has done.
So as I joined my neighbors in celebrating their siyum, I considered starting the new cycle, and began running through the dozen or more excellent shiurim in the neighborhood that I might attend to figure out what time would work out best and be the most suitable. I even skipped my beloved Shabbos afternoon shiur to try to catch up the three daf I was already behind.
But by the second amud, when I needed to write down the various opinions in the Mishnah and bareisos to understand the contradictions posed by the Gemara, I realized that the morning’s inspiration to join the cycle had been in the category of the bochurim who cried at the maggid’s drashah — an emotional response, not a considered judgment of where I was holding. The daf yomi would be more likely to leave me feeling frustrated and miserable.
That is not to say, however, that my friend’s tears had no impact. Many times in the past I’ve said, “The daf is not for me, but if there were an amud yomi chabura I’d be interested.” Those words were meaningless because I knew that no such chaburah exists nearby.
This time, however, I said, “Well, Berachos is not that difficult a tractate. Why not at least give the amud a shot with the talmidei chachamim of ArtScroll as a chavrusah?” It’s not the same as learning the daf, even at half-pace, because I’m not bound to any schedule, except the one in my own mind. But as I heard Rav Aharon Feldman say last week, at the very least, during the time I’m learning the amud, I won’t be reading emails or checking to see if Rasmussen has issued a new election poll in the last three hours.
The lomdei hadaf teach us, minimally, the importance of setting goals — especially goals that can only be realized with consistency and determination. And in today’s world, with its infinite distractions, the more fixed times that we can commit, the more hours that are nailed down and inviolable from time-wasting activities, the closer we come to fulfilling, “V’hagisa bo yomam valayla — You shall pronounce it day and night,” by spending every moment not devoted to the necessities of life, in Torah. And the more we study Torah, the more connected we will be to He Who gave that precious gift to Klal Yisrael.
Another Type of Hero
The lomdei hadaf are not the only unsung heroes in our midst. At a recent Shacharis minyan inChicago, it suddenly hit me how large are the ranks of such heroes. The minyan was a far more motley assemblage than the standard black and white attire to which I’m accustomed inJerusalem, and no one appeared to be on the way to kollel.
Yet almost every man in that minyan had something in common: Each one has subjected himself to the type of pressure that psychologists tell us is the hardest to deal with — i.e., constant, unremitting pressure — by virtue of their decision to send their children to Orthodox schools. One has to be doing very well indeed to be able to absorb the after-tax costs of Jewish education in America without a good deal of stress.
I would guess that every man at that minyan and his spouse have to regularly forego many things that others in their same income bracket view as necessities. And many will find themselves unable to provide their children with everything they need (not just what the children want) — e.g., orthodontia, tutoring — for no reason other than their tuition bills.
Mesirus nefesh is the ultimate measure of one’s deveikus to Hashem. It’s a pretty safe bet whenever one encounters a talmid chacham that his Torah knowledge came with much sacrifice. But the number of dapim one knows is only one measure of mesirus nefesh. Putting oneself under constant financial pressure so that one’s children can learn Torah is another. And it too deserves respect.
Hear No … Other Side
Most of us are extremely resistant to anything that challenges our worldview, whether it is unruly facts or another point of view, and that is true across the political divide. At the same time, we prefer to think of ourselves as open-minded, or at least as having arrived at our views by carefully weighing the facts and arguments.
Or at least so I thought. But Berkeleylinguist George Lakoff and co-author Elisabeth Wehling take a different view in a new book, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic. They advise Democrats to never repeat conservative language, even when arguing against them, lest those messages creep insidiously into their brains. On abortion, for instance, Lakoff instructs his readers to never respond to the argument that it is murder, or even acknowledge that such an argument has been made.
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto observes archly, “What comes across to conservatives as maddening arrogance [it turns out] is actually willed ignorance.”
One apparent Lakoff acolyte is President Obama. The August 7 New York Times reports that the White House feels deeply aggrieved about the media coverage it receives. The President complains about the media’s false balance, in which both sides are given equal weight, regardless of the facts.
The President’s analysis of the media will certainly come as a surprise to those who share the view of Walter Russell Mead (who voted for Obama in 2008) that he is the most “coddled and cosseted politician [by the media] in modern American history.”
That analysis can only be explained by the assumption that the President’s narrative is the truth, and all opposing views are factually mistaken. To even mention those opposing views is thus nothing more than sowing confusion in voters’ minds.
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