Only a few short weeks ago I got a glimpse of the truly transformative power of the big One-O-One
We’re now at a point in the year when the number 101 takes on a spiritual connotation. In the world at large, that number might trigger a mental association with Dalmatians, but for observant Jews dogged by forgetfulness, it has another significance entirely.
With the words “Mashiv haruach umorid hageshem” newly present in our Shemoneh Esreh since Succos, the more absent-minded among us turn to the halachically-sanctioned device of repeating the words from the paragraph “Atah gibbor” through “Mashiv haruach” 101 times. This saves the mnemonically-challenged from a never-ending loop of self-doubt and repeated tefillos for most of Cheshvan.
It was only a few short weeks ago, however, that I got a glimpse of the truly transformative power of the big One-O-One.
It began with an email forwarded to me by my dear friend Rabbi Dovid Newman. Although most renowned for his Vhaarev Na program of Gemara learning and review for yeshivah bochurim, Reb Dovid is a true Torah entrepreneur, constantly dreaming up new, innovative ways to light the fire of ahavas haTorah under his fellow Jews of every age and background.
One of his successful spin-offs of Vhaarev Na is Kinyan Hamasechta, a framework for Gemara retention and review being successfully used by balabatim around the world. And according to the email’s author, Moshe Goldstein, it had changed his life dramatically. An excerpt:
I’ve gone from casual learning by myself a couple of nights a week without really retaining much and listening to shiurim to and from work in the car — not quite lighting the world on fire, you might say — to seeing tremendous hatzlachah in Torah like I never imagined or dreamed of.
To actually know masechtos well, to have a geshmak in learning, to sit with a chavrusa on Shabbos afternoon and realize when you come up with a chiddush, that is real oneg Shabbos. To make siyumim every Shabbos, to completing roughly 4,000 blatt chazarah this year, to going from no chavrusa to many chavrusas and to realize that now you’re really living, experiencing a life surrounded by and impacted by Torah. This was truly unimaginable for me and has yet become mine and my family’s new reality.
The “4,000 blatt” (that’s about one and a half times all of Shas) wasn’t a typo, either.
Attached to the email was an invitation from Moshe and his wife to a siyum celebration. It was to take place on Sunday evening in the Inwood section of the Five Towns, two nights before Yom Kippur, which would begin on Tuesday evening. Frankly, it wasn’t what I’d had in mind to be doing 48 hours before Yom Kippur.
But I had to be there, to see this for myself.
As I parked my car outside the Soroka home on a quiet Inwood street, the booming music coming from inside the house told me I was about to experience a different kind of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah gathering from those to which I was accustomed. There was dancing to live music and a catered dinner for several dozen Inwood chevreh, at least half of whom seemed to be chavrusas of Moshe, judging from the remarks he delivered. Rabbi Dovid Newman was there too, of course, shepping richly-deserved nachas. It was, in short, a chasunah in miniature, the culmination of a story of what Rav Avigdor Miller used to call “boy meets Gemara.”
And the particular reason for that evening’s celebration? Moshe Goldstein’s completion of Maseches Makkos for the 101st time (although my sources tell me he’s already made a number of further siyumim since then).
In Chagigah 9b, Hillel expounds a pasuk in Malachi that distinguishes between two righteous people, one of whom serves Hashem and one who does not. The difference between them, explains Hillel, is that the one “who has not served Hashem” learns a passage of Torah 100 times, while his fellow, by dint of having studied the same passage one more time, for a full 101, merits the appellation of “one who serves Hashem.”
The question is obvious and compelling: How can someone who has invested the toil, the time, the dedication needed to review a piece of Gemara 100 times possibly be referred to as one who hasn’t served Hashem?
I once suggested that Chazal speak of someone learning a piece of Torah 100 times in the same vein that the number 100 is used elsewhere in Shas, to denote the outer limits of one capability. Thus, for example, Chazal ordained that the finder of another’s lost object must keep returning it to its owner “even 100 times,” meaning as repeatedly as is humanly possible.
What, then, in the “wisdom language” of Chazal, does it mean to learn something 101 times? It denotes an individual who has broken through the barriers of nature, transcending his limitations and “breaking” his very self, as it were.
Of course, anyone who seriously toils in learning is an oved Hashem. But he might very well have other considerations at heart, too. He might also be enjoying the prestige that learning brings or the intellectual challenge it presents. He might be hoping it will earn him a coveted shidduch or sought-after position. He might, in other words, be serving Hashem and also be self-serving at the very same time. And that’s okay, since Chazal encourage a person to learn with vested motives, with an ultimate goal of reaching the level of altruism.
But there comes a point when a person becomes so committed to his learning, when he so surpasses the normal bounds of endurance and stamina that he can only be regarded as a pure oved Hashem. When one acts in seeming disregard for his own interests as the world defines them, it means he has lost his self in Torah, becoming entirely other-directed toward the One Who gave the Torah.
The seforim point out that the name of our arch-enemy, Amalek, can be read as the phrase ‘Amal (and the letter) kuf,’ implying some point of comparison between Amalek and one who toils (“amal”) through 100 (“kuf”) rounds of review of his learning — but no more. What could that be?
Amalek is the ultimate nihilist, and there’s nothing Amalek loathes more than transcendence, the notion that there’s meaning that goes beyond the finite, material universe, and that there’s a soul that can express that meaning and a G-d Who created that soul. Amalek can perhaps tolerate one who learns Torah within the parameters of the humanly normal. But he who learns that 101st time has by definition transcended the self, and that Amalek will never abide.
Moshe Goldstein will insist, as he did that night in Inwood maybe 101 times over, that he’s just an ordinary guy who happens to have fallen in love with Torah. And that’s the secret of that extra “one.” How ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things in learning if they have the will.
Reb Moshe Goldstein is you and me and so many of us. And that’s precisely what makes his example — of what happens when you horeveh and break through the barriers of the finite — so powerful. It’s Amalek’s biggest nightmare.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 934. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
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