W hy should the sight of an old-fashioned Gemara volume create any anxiety within me?

Hear my tale. The flights from the US to Tel Aviv can run 12 hours, time that can be spent sleeping or eating or reading or studying or all of the above. (I avoid the “entertainment” offered by the airlines, which, other than the classical music, is mentally rather stultifying.)

Over the years, however, I have never been able to do any serious Gemara study on those long flights. I don’t know precisely why — perhaps it is the constant interruptions, the roar of the engines, the quality of the cabin air — but for whatever reason I cannot achieve the sustained concentration or focus that Talmud requires. So I have compromised by studying Mishnayos and other classic seforim, which require somewhat less concentration. Twelve hours is a long time, and although I have always felt a bit uneasy about not spending a good portion of that time in some solid Gemara study, I have successfully justified my dereliction of duty by resorting to that excuse of interruptions-noisy-different-air–pressure.

Until now. On my most recent trip, as I settled into my seat just before takeoff, a man took his seat across the aisle from me. On his chin was a trim beard, on his head was a black yarmulke, and on his lap was a Gemara waiting to be opened.

As I stared at the Gemara. I began to feel irritated, annoyed, even resentful. Does this guy not know that it is impossible to study Gemara on a plane? Who is he trying to impress?

But within me there arose a gnawing sense of guilt. If he can learn Gemara on a plane, why can’t I? Have I all along been spuriously rationalizing my non-learning habit? If he is able to concentrate, how come the interruptions or the noise or the air pressure don’t disturb him? Have I been fooling myself during all these years of intercontinental travel? If I had utilized all those precious hours to study Gemara, by now I might have completed a sizeable chunk of the Talmud.

So went my self-flagellation, all because of this guy flaunting his scholarship. Show-off, that’s what he is.

The plane roared down the runway, lifted into the air, and we were on our way. I looked out the window, momentarily distracted from my nemesis across the aisle. The seat belt sign quickly disappeared and we were free to move around the cabin.

I got up to stretch — and to peek at which Gemara he was studying. The volume lay still closed on his lap, and I could see the title. It was Tractate Sanhedrin. Clearly, this guy was involved in the daf yomi program. Ostentatiously so.

Not to be outdone, I pulled out my Mishnayos. Granted, Mishnayos is not Gemara, but without it there would be no Gemara, of course. I studied for a few minutes, engrossed in the text, and then glanced across the aisle at my fellow scholar. His Gemara still lay in his lap, unopened. Had he fallen asleep? No. His eyes were wide open, intently focused on something else. On the screen in front of him. He was watching a movie.

Right then and there, before my very eyes, there occurred a magical transmogrification. All my resentment against him melted away. He was, after all, such a fine, perfectly normal fellow. He wasn’t trying to upstage anyone. He had sincerely intended to study that Talmud, but somehow the devil got hold of him.

I understood fully. We are all human, all weak. Not everyone can withstand the siren calls of the temptations lurking all around us. This fellow with the unopened Gemara on his lap — he was really a great guy.

With warm feelings of friendship for him, I went back to studying my Mishnayos. The screen before me remained dark.

I tried not to be ostentatious about it. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672)