T he yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael that I attended had a really good gym.

That was one of the main reasons I chose that yeshivah.

I certainly didn’t choose it for the learning. The year in Israel was the in thing to do in the Modern Orthodox school I came from, but the yeshivah’s Torah classes, to me, were something to get out of the way so I could get on with the real business of life. Sports. A career.

Most of the rebbeim in the yeshivah didn’t manage to engage me, probably due to my own immaturity, but there was one rebbi, Rabbi Goodstein, who actually seemed to “get” me and my friends. One day, he picked up a Gemara and asked us, “Is this boring for you guys?”

We all unabashedly said yes.

“If I would put you in a room with a guitar,” he said, “how long would it take you to get bored?”

“Uh, half an hour?” someone offered.

Rabbi Goodstein nodded. “There are people who can play the guitar for hours without getting bored. You know what’s the difference between you and them? They know how to play the music.”

Pointing to the Gemara, he asked, “Is this at least as sophisticated as a guitar?”

“Yeah,” we conceded.

“Well, the reason it’s boring for you is that you don’t know how to play the music.”

Over the rest of that year, he proceeded to teach us how to play the music, how to really connect with Torah and Yiddishkeit.

Rabbi Goodstein unlocked for me a whole new perspective of what Gemara study was about. Previously, I had viewed the Gemara as a collection of antiquated legalities and arcane narratives. Now, I discovered that each discussion in the Gemara is actually, at its root, a debate over conflicting values.

Case in point: The gemara in Sanhedrin discusses how much clothing a condemned convict is supposed to wear during his execution. Less clothing means a quicker, less painful death; more clothing means a more dignified death. In debating this issue, the Gemara is attempting to determine which is the higher value: not inflicting pain, or maintaining personal dignity. And the fact that this discussion centers around someone who has flagrantly committed a capital offense — in the presence of witnesses, after being warned not to — highlights to us that the Torah is concerned with the suffering and dignity of even the lowliest individual.

The Gemara, I discovered, is a training ground for real life, teaching us how to crystallize our values and make decisions that reflect the priority scale of those values.

No longer did the case of the ox goring the neighbor’s ox seem like a purely hypothetical circumstance. Now, I saw it as a fascinating exploration of the limits and extent of personal responsibility and liability. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 661)