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When encountering multitudes of Jews, we must look beyond the mesmerizing enormity of the crowd

The other morning, I saw an older gentleman across the way in shul wearing a black baseball-type cap emblazoned with the words “DAF NATION.” My initial internal reaction wasn’t an overly charitable one.

Phrases like that one have the instinctive effect of pressing the invisible button on my psychic dashboard labeled “Beware of Mass Anything.” That button gets pressed more and more frequently in today’s frum world, in which initiatives and projects to get thousands of us — no, all of Klal Yisrael, in unison! — to do this or learn that or definitely not do something else, are commonplace in a way they weren’t in times I can still remember.

It’s a tricky topic, because on the one hand, one can’t gainsay the importance of Jews joining together in numbers for a good cause. The halachic concept of berov am hadras melech and Chazal’s statements like eino domeh merubim ha’osim es haTorah l’mu’atin ha’osim es haTorah convey that clearly.

And yet. While the proposition that “the more, the better” has its place in regard to ruchniyus, so too does the one that says “less is more.”

In this season of mass, record-setting events, we need to thread the needle between feeling pride in our growing ranks without getting intoxicated by them. Chazal teach that the first Luchos didn’t last because of the highly public way in which they were given. Just because something is important doesn’t mean that the value of tznius, of understatement and privacy, is to be cast aside with impunity. Ever since the Torah declared (Devarim 7:7) that we were beloved and chosen by Hashem “not because you are the most populous of nations… for you are the smallest of nations,” we Jews have never played the numbers game. In his work Jewish Woman in Jewish Law, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman makes the important observation that “the high points in the lives of the major male figures of the Bible occurred in private.” Yaakov’s night-long struggle with the guardian angel of Eisav, the Akeidah, Yosef’s taming of temptation, Moshe’s communion with G-d, the avodah of the Kohein Gadol in the holiest place on the holiest day —all took place in splendid seclusion.

Rabbi Meiselman writes:

How different they are from Greek heroes! Perhaps the clearest example is the contrast between the Akeidah and the Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis. While Abraham sacrificed Isaac to G-d, for G-d and before G-d alone, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia for Greece and in the presence of Greece. The essence of the Greek heroic act lay in its public appeal and public nature….

Far from the shores of Aulis was the Jewish hero. To the Jew, moral victory for both man and woman is what one does for G-d and before G-d, the source of all value. Jewish tradition frowns upon public display, for the moment a human acts in public, his motivation can be tainted by unworthy considerations.

And then there’s the concern that when masses of individuals act in concert, they’ll cease being individuals. We thankfully don’t have the worries of the world at large about the madness of the mob,  but even in a Torah society, we still need to be vigilant regarding  the potential melding of the monolith, the damage that a cookie-cutter mentality can do to the precious individuality inherent in each Jew’s tzelem Elokim. A certain gadol, speaking of the tendency of uniformity to stifle and snuff out creative, independent thinking, called it a “Sedom bettel,” a guest bed of the sort used in Sedom of antiquity, with one difference: In Sedom, they’d cut off the feet, while today, in the rush to cut everyone down to size, it’s the head that’s first to go.

Many people know of the brachah Chazal instituted to recite upon seeing a huge throng of Jews (Brachos 58a). But less well-known is that it’s worded “Baruch Chacham Harazim — Blessed is the Knower of Secrets,” because, the Gemara explains, the minds of men are as different from each other as are their faces, and yet Hashem knows what’s in the minds of them all.

When encountering multitudes of Jews, we’re supposed to look beyond the mesmerizing enormity of the crowd. The brachah directs us to focus instead on the utter uniqueness of every single person in that mass of humanity and to offer praise to the Source of such stunning diversity.

The notion of a “Daf Nation” is a good example. The “irrational exuberance” (to borrow one-time Fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s memorable phrase) about all things Daf that’s been wafting through our communal air these last many weeks is endearing to behold: The gadgets augmenting the learning; the young kids joining, at least for now, the ranks of lomdei daf yomi; the bumper stickers extolling this year’s bumper crop of “Shas Yidden.”

If nothing else, it’s worth making a Hamavdil bein kodesh lechol over the contrast between what a balebos is proud to walk around with on his baseball cap and what his societal counterparts showcase on theirs.

And yet. There really isn’t, nor ought there to be, anything called a Daf Nation. Torah nation? Sure. We already are one, as Rav Saadia Gaon’s famed formulation tells us. But Torah is chayeinu v’orech yameinu:  It’s not, as Rav Boruch Ber explained, life-facilitating oxygen, but the stuff of life itself. The individual Jew’s path to success in Torah is just too important to be left to well-meaning exuberance. His time and energy for Torah is too limited for him to allow himself to be swept up in a stampede toward unexamined goals without considering the available options and seeking wise counsel about which to choose.

There are lots of people whose life situation and learning background recommend daf yomi as their primary vehicle of choice for limud haTorah — and there are lots of people for whom it’s not.  And among learners of the Daf themselves, there are very many who know they ought to be taking things to the next level, whether in how they learn it or how much they review and retain.

In an essay in the journal Dialogue in 2013, I extolled daf yomi as “a peerless program of mass-scale limud HaTorah, one that has likely done more, spiritually and educationally, for more Jews than any single other initiative in modern times.”

But, I continued,

masses are comprised of individuals, each with his own abilities and limitations…. It is all too often the case that lomdei haDaf have been through the cycle two or more times without their skills for independent study having grown appreciably from one go-round to the next and with the thousands of dapim they’ve traversed in the earlier cycles naught but a distant, hazy memory.

Yet, is the energetic promotion of daf yomi study in the run-up to each Siyum accompanied by calls of equal passion for those already “with the program” to deepen their study appreciably or even move on to other Torah pursuits that might be more in their long-term interest?

And I quoted the words of Rav Shmuel Wosner, a talmid of Rav Meir Shapiro, who described his rebbe’s intention that the Daf be learned with ever-deeper comprehension and regular review. He concluded this way:

We hear today about huge crowds, thousands upon thousands, coming to take part in the Siyum celebrations, many of whom were personally zocheh to be mesayem . . . . They, and the Jewish people as a whole, have a great zechus! However, “I am a friend to all who fear You” (Tehillim 119:63), and as a “good friend,” I allow myself the liberty of giving constructive criticism that emanates from the mitzvah of “Love your friend as yourself.” I call on my beloved Yidden: Taste the sweetness of toil in Torah! The value of this toil is indescribable and beyond imagination. Nothing is more important; it is the source of everything.

It’s been seven years since I wrote all that, and another Siyum has come and gone. Interest in daf yomi has reached new highs, but it’s not clear that as a community we’ve learned to approach the topic with the nuance it deserves.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 799. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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