T he phone call is pretty much routine.

“Hi, it’s Zev. I had a gentleman here earlier, never learned Gemara before. He’d like to start learning with someone, and I think you’ll do a good job. You have time?”

Since working together with Zev, the rabbi of a fledgling outreach community, is my full-time job, I reply in the affirmative without a second thought.

Jack and I arrange to meet at the shul the next morning for our first session. I come prepared with an idea of which Gemara we’ll start with (on Zev’s recommendation, Maseches Sotah) and a bottle of lemonade. As I wait for him, I wonder what kind of progress we’ll make. A man who’s never learned Gemara; there’s no knowing what questions will come up.

At ten on the dot, a distinguished-looking, elderly man enters the beis medrash, walking very erect. He’s wearing an uncomfortably large kippah, a well-cut suit, and a dazzling tie. I take a deep breath and rise to greet him.

“Hi, I’m Moish.”

The handshake is firm and decisive.

I slide the Gemara over so he can see it, too. “So I thought we could begin with...”

Jack gently closes the Gemara. “I don’t want to start just yet,” he clarifies. “In fact, I’m not sure I want to learn this right now at all. First, I have some questions for you. Things that have bothered me for a while now.”

You know how you can suddenly become aware of a pulse in a random place in your body? And think, hey, I never noticed that before? That’s what happens now. A pulse in my finger speeds up, and I’m sure a look of alarm must’ve flitted across my features before I have the sense to cover it up with an encouraging smile.

“Yes?” I say, praying there’s nothing I can’t answer. This part is Zev’s job, not mine. I’m here to teach, to learn, but not to debate. At least, not until now. Apparently, my job description just changed.

“So what’s it for?” he asks, without preamble. I give him a questioning glance. He clarifies. “It’s like this. I’m a professor, and I have many friends with similarly high-flying careers. And yet, the religious ones often say how they would give it all up, everything, if they could just sit and learn Gemara all day.” He gestures at the modest-looking volume before us. “I don’t get it. Really, I don’t. What’s it for? What’s so exciting about learning this book, that successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, dream of giving up their careers to do so?”

I let him go on in this fashion, figuring the longer I had to formulate an answer, the better. Still, when he winds down, I’m not sure what to say. Stalling for time, and hoping for inspiration, I ask him about his own career. Maybe this way we could speak his language.

He tells me he’s a professor of radiology, and works in a nearby hospital. My mind clicks rapidly. On a thread of an idea, I begin to ask him questions.

“So, you do X-rays.”

He looks taken aback at the casual choice of words, and I hastily correct myself. “You analyze X-rays. You study the images and make deductions, help diagnose and detect illnesses or changes within the body. Correct?”

He nods slowly, as if there’s so much more to his profession than I could ever know, and he’s right. But I’m attempting to answer his question, so I ignore the doubt in his eyes.

“So say a technician brought you a scan,” I suggest. “There’s a mark that shouldn’t be there, somewhere on the patient’s body. He can’t make it out, so he brings it to you, as the head of the department.” He brightens at the compliment, so I draw it out. “You study the scan and the mark, and are surprised to see it’s something you’ve never come across before in all your years of study and experience. So you ask for another scan, another angle.”

A definite nod.

“You take one image, then another. The mark is barely discernible from that perspective. You are racking your brains, calling in other professors. What could it be? And suddenly, you have a brain wave.”

I glance at him to see if my story is hitting home. Sure enough, Jack is fully engaged. This is a story he knows well.

“You run into the examination room, call the technician, and ask for another scan, this time from a very specific angle. The mark is finally clear for all to see. You study it, fit the pieces together, and at that moment everything falls into place.”

I look at him. “At that moment, how do you feel?”

Jack doesn’t hesitate. “There’s almost no word to describe it.… Exhilarated, I guess. It’s what makes my job worthwhile.”

“Exactly.” I pause. “And that’s what people who study Gemara experience every single day.”

He’s impressed for exactly two seconds. “Okay,” he concedes. “I hear that. But let me ask you something else: Why do you always learn in pairs? Why can’t I study alone if I want to? I was never one of those guys who studied with others. I prefer going at my own pace and speed.”

I think of a dozen answers, but none of them are good enough. Instead of trying for a second brain wave, I open the Gemara. “Why don’t we try it, and see?” I suggest.

Jack shrugs and agrees. He takes out his own Gemara, an ArtScroll Maseches Brachos, and turns to a page at random. “Let’s start here.”

I point to the beginning of a new perek, toward the end of the page he selected. I tell Jack to ask as many questions as he can, and I will do the same. The art of mastering Gemara comes through questioning everything; don’t take anything for granted. He responds by asking a fairly simple question, which I answer smoothly.

He doesn’t like the answer. Argues back. To prove my point, I pull out another sefer. You could tell he was a professor; even without the extensive background in Torah or Gemara-learning, he’s completely on the ball. Suddenly, he comes over to my point of view, reminding me of something I’d said earlier, and fitting the pieces all back together.

“I didn’t think of that,” we both say at the same time.

I seize the opportunity. “You did it, you’ve answered your own question! Can you see now, Jack, why we learn in pairs?” I ask passionately. “For this reason. This is it! The give-and-take, the arguing things out, is what helps us come to the right conclusions. I could never have done this alone.”

I watch the pieces fall into place inside his head. “I get it,” he says slowly.

“And that’s it!” I almost shout back. “The getting it! That’s the excitement of learning, the exhilaration you mentioned, the beauty of having everything click into place. That’s what we feel when we learn Gemara.”

He opens his mouth, then closes it. A smile spreads slowly across his face. And finally, Jack touches The Moment. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 674)