T here’s great value in being able to bring a fresh pair of eyes to life situations, to observe a scene you’ve beheld so many times before, yet look at it anew from a different perspective. That’s an experience I had just last week upon taking a plane trip to Eretz Yisrael.

Not long after takeoff, we were served dinner and then, with the cabin having quieted down and the lights dimmed, most passengers settled in for an attempt at getting some sleep or at least something approximating it.

Fast-forward a few hours of fitful sleep later, and I awoke to the scene I’ve witnessed, and taken part in, so often before. This being an overnight flight, large numbers of religious travelers onboard had to daven Shacharis in-flight, surely a less-than-ideal circumstance. Here and there throughout the plane, frum men like myself had begun to rise from their seats, retrieve tallis and tefillin from overhead compartments, and don them in preparation for davening the morning tefillah. Within minutes, dozens were engaged in this predawn ritual in every corner of the aircraft.

If we think of that experience as conventional, it’s only because we’re so used to it that we’re inured to its novelty. But conventional it surely isn’t. For one thing, many of these men deserve the equivalent of Olympic bronze in gymnastics. Economy class is cramped enough, well beyond what on terra firma we consider humane, not affording a spare inch in which to enjoy even the most minimal creature comforts. Add to that the variety of contorted positions in which human beings in various states of consciousness are lying in these wee hours, legs stretched out in aisles, arms dangling off the sides of seats, and more.

Insert, then, into this environment a few score grown men managing the feat of swathing themselves in large cloaks, swishing their multiple fringes to and fro, and donning tefillin. And as all this activity proceeds in near-total silence, neighboring passengers slumber on, left, right, front,and back, thanks to a competition-level display of nimbleness and agility on the part of the tallis-and-tefillin contingent.

But there’s more to this scene that marks it as anything but conventional. Here is likely the only instance in the regular course of life in which fellow members of society, non-Jews and secular Jews alike, get to glimpse up-close — far too close, in fact — the inner life of religious Jews. Although they didn’t sign up for it, they’re treated to a front-row seat as devout Jews shake off their slumber to engage in religious devotions, and rather strange-looking ones at that.

On my flight last week, there was a church group bound for the Holy Land, nice folks from somewhere down South, and they got to see a bunch of Jews who actually live the verses of the Old Testament, for whom it hasn’t been superseded by a more exciting sequel (and who also consider the book much better than the movie). There were also a good number of nonreligious people, Israelis and Americans, and they, too, got to see that tefillin aren’t something you wear once and then lose somewhere along the line, but a daily lifeline to the Almighty.

Some of these people may have an abstract knowledge of what we do in shul, and some may have no idea whatsoever. But I believe there’s a power all its own to seeing something unfold before one’s eyes. Watching men rouse themselves in the dark of night, long before everyone else awakens, seeing as they prepare themselves for the experience of communing with G-d and then sway in prayer with quiet dignity and intent, all work their effect.

And one more thing: It tells them that these Jews aren’t going anywhere, they’re history-defying, indestructible. Just 70 years ago, the parents and grandparents of many of these tallis-and-tefillin wearers were hunted across Europe and killed, their talleisim rent and tefillin smashed. But look: They’re back, doing their thing in front of the whole world, on airplanes, in courthouses and corporate offices.

Many years ago, the Brandeis University scholar Simon Rawidowicz coined a phrase that referred to Jews as an “ever-dying people.” Rawidowicz is gone and his phrase is, I suppose, still heard now and then at an academic conference somewhere. But I took El Al Flight 008 from New York last week, and I was very proud to be surrounded on every side by members of an ever-tying people.

FRESH PERSPECTIVES ARE USEFUL not only for observing familiar scenes in new ways, but also for assessing longstanding practices to gauge whether we aren’t merely repeating the same things we’ve always done but with diminishing returns, and whether there might be a better way.

An example of this might be the thoughts a friend recently shared with me about his own experience as a lomeid Torah. He has found it to be far more effective — in terms of both comprehension and retention — to learn an amud each day coupled with review of the previous day’s amud, than to cover a daily daf without review.

If one has, for example, an hour available for Gemara learning each day, my friend believes people would profit far more from spending the first 15 minutes of their daily seder reviewing yesterday’s learning and then devoting the next 45 minutes to learning the new amud well, than to dash through a difficult daf in an hour, sacrificing Rashis and often even a basic, clear understanding of the Gemara, never to see that daf again for another seven years.

A person following this path will finish Shas in the course of 14 years as many times as those learning a daf-a-day — yet the immediate review will surely give him greater retention than the fellow who waits seven years to revisit a Gemara he hasn’t seen for an entire shemittah cycle. The strongest argument against this approach, he acknowledges, is a psychological one: That the much-anticipated siyum will have to wait fourteen years rather than seven, and many others will be celebrating a grand siyum at what is for him only a midpoint through Shas. But is that a sufficiently valid consideration to counterbalance all that’s to be gained with the approach my friend suggests?

And, he adds, when one following this suggested cycle does reach the finish line after 14 years and celebrates a well-deserved siyum, if his friend and former neighbor at the local Daf Yomi shiur sidles up to him and says, “So, when’s your next siyum?” the reply can be one word.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 688. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com