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Toward Shabbat: Vayigash

January 3, 2020

Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina said…One day the arenas of popular culture will be used by Jewish leaders to teach Torah in public. 

—Talmud Tractate Megilah 6a

It was quite the party.

There was music, and singing, and dancing. Ninety-two thousand people were there, cheering and celebrating. It was at Met Life Stadium…but it wasn’t the Superbowl. It was on January 1…but it wasn’t a New Year’s bash.

It was a Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the end of a cycle of Talmud study called Daf Yomi, in which the 2711 pages of Talmud are learned, one page a day, over the course of seven and a half years. Two days ago, over 92,000 Jews came together for the largest Siyum HaShas (lit: Conclusion of the Six Orders of the Talmud) in the world.

The project of Daf Yomi (lit: Daily Page) began in 1923.Today, hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries learn Daf Yomi; while it has historically been a practice of Orthodox men, a growing number of women are now taking part, as are people outside of Orthodox communities: 3000 women are expected to attend the first ever women’s siyum in Jerusalem, and BJ is one of several partners in a siyum in New York this coming Sunday afternoon, sponsored by the egalitarian yeshivah Hadar.

Daf Yomi, and its culminating celebration, is an amazing practice. As the Jewish world reaches the conclusion and starts again, I want to lift up and take to heart three of its spiritual teachings—relevant to all of us even if we have not participated in the cycle of study:

The importance of public Jewish pride. Ninety-two thousand Jews, learning Torah together in Met Life Stadium. What a powerful act, especially in the face of the antisemitism we have seen this year. Instead of removing the outward symbols of Jewishness, 92,000 people celebrated Jewish identity and the ancient texts that are core to Jewish tradition in the most public way possible.

The potential for Jewish connectedness. At a moment of intense polarization within the Jewish people, the practice of Daf Yomi pushes us to see Jewish learning and tradition as a beautiful unifying force, one that can bridge Jewish communities around the world. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, who proposed the idea of Day Yomi to the World Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna:
What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes gemara [Tractate] Berahot under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Israel to America, and each day he learns the daf [that day’s page]. When he arrives in America, he…finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to [a place of Jewish study], where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?

The value of practice, be it meaningful or not. I once had the opportunity to study with a rabbi who had learned the entire Talmud several times. When I asked him how he relates to material that doesn’t feel compelling or relevant to our contemporary Jewish lives, he responded that not every moment of studying Talmud is meaningful, but there is meaning in continuing to study—even when it is not meaningful. Sounds like a Zen koan, I know! There is deep, deep wisdom in these words. In contemporary American Jewish communities (especially outside of Orthodoxy) the intense efforts to make Judaism meaningful are largely a good thing—but they tend to ignore an important truth of spiritual practice, which is that not every moment of it will be meaningful. Prayer can frequently feel rote. Meditation is often boring. Yoga sometimes feels like nothing more than stretching. Should we walk away and give up at these moments? Of course not. Daf Yomi reminds us: Spiritual practice is discipline, it is committing to the practice whether we feel like it or not, whether it is meaningful or not. And perhaps, we will find meaning in the discipline of practice itself.

Seven and a half years ago, when the last cycle of Daf Yomi ended, I had just given birth to my first child. As an overwhelmed new mother, I wisely opted not to start learning Daf Yomi with the new cycle that was about to begin—but I promised myself I would start at the next cycle.

So here we are, seven and a half years later. On Sunday, January 5, I will begin learning, one daf a day, in the cycle of Daf Yomi. I will surely miss days, fall behind, race to catch up, struggle to understand, feel exhilarated when I do, and occasionally question myself for taking on this commitment. But seven and a half years from now, I hope to report that I have found meaning in this daily practice, that I have travelled to Brazil or Japan or Israel and connected with Jews I’ve never met who are also studying the daf, and that I will be celebrating this achievement with public Jewish pride.

Even if you are not about to start studying the Daf, I hope its lessons and wisdom will find resonance with you. And if you want to start studying the Daf, let me know!

May the year 2020 bring health, happiness, pride, and spiritual growth to us all.