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Holding on to All of Me

We may not remember what we ingested each time we learned, but our Torah learning builds us much more than the food we eat



t was close to 1 a.m., and I was exhausted after a grueling day. I was eager to collapse into bed, and yet, there was something more to do, the day still incomplete until it was done. Before putting the day behind me, I sat down to learn.

Baruch Hashem, learning Torah has been a core of my entire adult life. In addition to the rigorous schedule of shiurim I’m fortunate to teach, I have had a daily chavrusa for many years — even though our schedules occasionally get away from us. Due to emergencies, the need to travel, or unexpected interruptions, there are days when our learning together simply doesn’t happen, and, shamefully too often, neither does most of my personal Torah learning.

So what makes a person who is desperate for sleep find the energy and willpower to stay up just a little bit longer to learn? What changed that made me sit down to learn that night, fighting off exhaustion?

Seven and a half years ago, we had the privilege to broadcast the Siyum HaShas at our shul, the Boca Raton Synagogue. Throughout the inspirational evening and the electric speeches, my chavrusa and I kept looking at each other. We didn’t even need to say the words. Our glances communicated our new commitment: We were going to join the daf yomi movement and finish Shas together.

In these seven and a half years, we have honored that promise, learning early in the morning or late at night, in the beis medrash or on the phone, sometimes in my house, at times in his house, on the sidelines of a simchah, even sitting next to each other on a plane or in a parked car.

Of course, my story is far from unique. The benefits of learning the daf are well known and have been amplified in many places. I can add my own affirmation in recognizing that without exaggeration, my family and my chavrusa’s family have been transformed, and our lives have been enriched. We are now members of a community and a movement, and we are literally on the same page as Klal Yisrael.

And yet, to be honest, there is a certain drawback, a major challenge in covering an entire daf each and every day. For me, and I suspect many others, it is almost impossible to retain learning at that accelerated pace. Even for those who review, and certainly for those who only learn it once and move on, it’s difficult to remember not just everything, but anything. Sometimes, one can forget not only in which perek or daf, but even in which masechta an idea or topic appeared.

Chazal tell us in Pirkei Avos (6:1) that among the rewards for one who occupies himself with Torah lishmah is “Umachsharto lihiyos tzaddik v’chassid yashar v’ne’eman — Torah equips him to be righteous, pious, upright, and trustworthy.” Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim) explains that just as hechsher keilim purges treif from a utensil, so too, Torah has the capacity to purge the treif, impure thoughts, ideas, and images from a person’s neshamah.

This insight gives me chizuk and inspiration when reflecting on the enormous ground we have covered, even if I don’t feel I’m “holding” there. The deeper power of Torah is that even when we don’t fully retain what we’ve learned, the Torah we are learning kashers what is between our ears while it passes through.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten, even so, they have made me.” At the end of a given year, we have eaten over a thousand meals and likely don’t remember a vast majority of them. Yet, if we went a few days without eating, our health would be compromised.

Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu. Torah is the nourishment for our souls, our very life source. If we skip a spiritual meal or a dose of the daf, we compromise our spiritual health. We may not remember what we ingested each time we learned, but make no mistake: Our Torah learning builds us much more than the food we eat.

With this upcoming Siyum, we’ll have learned 2,711 pages of Gemara, but how many of the robust debates, sharp analyses, and penetrating insights can we quote or reference? I myself have debated my worthiness in being considered as having made a siyum on Shas when I am not truly holding in Shas. Is remembering Shas a prerequisite for celebrating a Siyum HaShas?

The Gemara (Yevamos 121a) tells us that Rabban Gamliel relates that he was once at sea and from a distance saw a boat that had capsized and sank. “I was distraught over the loss of Rabi Akiva, who was on board. When I disembarked onto dry land, Rabi Akiva came before me to study. Shocked, I asked, ‘My son, who brought you up from the water?’ Rabi Akiva responded, ‘Daf shel sefinah. A daf (wooden plank) from the boat floated to me. I grabbed onto it and I bent my head before each and every wave that came toward me until I reached the shore.’ ”

As is well known, when first proposing the daf yomi movement, Rav Meir Shapiro quoted this story and said that when we feel life has thrown us overboard, when we sense that we’re drowning, we, too, can grab onto our daf, daf yomi, to find balance and to feel safe.

Indeed, the greatness of daf yomi is in its consistency and kashering capacity. The daily study of Torah purifies us, cleanses us, inspires us, and enriches us. But we don’t only go through Shas. Even when we can’t remember everything we’ve learned, we’re transformed by the fact that Shas has gone through us.

I saw and felt the power of grabbing onto the daf firsthand recently when I, along with our whole community in South Florida, went through the horrific loss of an extraordinary friend. Despite a grueling schedule as a prominent cardiologist, serving as a leader for several communal organizations, including our shul and a local yeshivah, my yedid nefesh Dr. Brian Galbut z”l always set aside time for Torah study each and every day. Space does not permit a full accounting of how special and extraordinary Brian was, but it was no secret to anyone who knew him that among his great passions and learning accomplishments was finishing the daf yomi cycle several times.

A little over two years ago, when Brian, who was just 45, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, the daf took on even greater significance to him and he grabbed onto it. The week after his first brain surgery, Brian was not recuperating in his bed or convalescing on the couch. Instead, he was sitting in the local kollel. He felt that learning Torah, reviewing the daf over and over again was a critical part of his healing process. When I planned a visit, he said, “Why don’t you come meet me at the kollel? We can do the daf.” And that is exactly what we did on more than one occasion. In the weeks after his diagnosis, he spent time calling friends and family from around the world, asking if they could take up learning daf yomi in his merit. Many did, and many are still doing it.

As Brian’s horrific illness progressed, his once-brilliant mind struggled to gain a basic understanding of the Gemara. Instead of getting frustrated, he grabbed onto the daf even tighter and reviewed it over and over each day. In the last few days of his life, Brian was no longer conscious, but his family understood that as important as any medicine dripping into his veins was the sound of that day’s daf reverberating into his ears. Right on his pillow, next to his head, the daf yomi shiur was playing on repeat. At that point, Brian was no longer able to go through the daf, but even then, the daf continued to go through him.

In the end, I am enormously proud to be part of this Siyum. While I cannot confidently tell you that I am holding in all of Shas, I can tell you with certainty that Shas is holding on to all of me. And that is why, as we begin the next cycle, I have no intention of putting it down.


Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS), a rapidly growing congregation of over 850 families and over 1,000 children in Boca Raton, Florida.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 791)

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