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Enjoying the Ride

I shall never forget his matter-of-fact reply, as if I had just pitched a suggestion even more idiotic than vanilla coke. “Why, everyone,” he responded, totally incredulous, "has to learn [read: know] Kodshim!”
The Time I Almost Gave Up


hy did I begin learning daf yomi? To be honest, it wasn’t for the most exalted of reasons. It’s impressive to say that you learn daf yomi, and it’s complimentary to be associated with men who carve out a regular portion of their day for talmud Torah. When you travel internationally and domestically, as I do, it’s a lot more ego-gratifying to ask about the timing and location of the local daf than about the local money transfers.

And when your host informs you of the local daf yomi opportunities and you have to reply, “Thank you, no thank you” you’re forced to consume a generous portion of humble pie.

It gets worse. Three daf yomi cycles ago, I was in Poland leading a seminary tour at the time of the Siyum HaShas. Naturally we celebrated this milestone in Rav Meir Shapiro’s yeshivah, Chachmei Lublin. After the dancing, many students congratulated me on my achievement. I was forced to correct them and then consume industrial-sized helpings of humble pie.

I resolved not to go through this humiliation again, which has got to be one of the most unprecedented reasons for joining daf yomi. But it is quite one thing to make a commitment and yet another to fulfill it.

Chazal, with their infinite wisdom, commence Shas with Berachos, which even I can handle, but they come back with a vengeance at the beginning of the second tractate, Maseches Shabbos. So this is what separated the men from the boys, and I was feeling a lot of affinity for the latter.

However, in other aspects of life I have not been known to be a quitter, so I persevered. Still, as anyone who has attended yeshivah knows, it is disenchanting, disheartening, and downright depressing to sit through a shiur that you cannot comprehend. Again and again.

Suddenly my lifelong associate, the yetzer hara, was changing his tone. He never tried the avenue that I could use the extra sleep, as I sleep little and that would have been a nonstarter. His pitch was that I was wasting time when I could utilize it more productively by learning on my own, or reviewing Gemara that I understood. Somehow, I resisted this temptation as well.

Until… looming ahead was a mountain that I was not prepared to scale. The Kodshim section toward the end of Shas is technical, germane to an aspect of Judaism I have had no exposure to and based on a whole different set of rules from conventional yeshivah learning. By way of analogy, with 1,000 l’havdils inserted, think about the appeal and the relevance of understanding the intricacies of a fuel-injection system.

I was ready to bolt. So I sneakily figured out the most cogent, rational, compelling, and persuasive argument and presented my slam dunk to bow out of daf yomi to the greatest logician I know, Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz.

I shall never forget his matter-of-fact reply, as if I had just pitched a suggestion even more idiotic than vanilla coke. “Why, everyone,” he responded, totally incredulous, “has to learn [read: know] Kodshim!”

I remember glancing at my son-in-law and the two of us tried to furiously suppress a laugh as loud as the flight line at Chicago O’Hare. I shrugged my shoulders, resigned to my inevitable fate: “Piggul, here I come!”

Upon reflection, that turned out to be a watershed decision. By committing to Kodshim, I had consciously and deliberately bought into the entire system. And on that day, a fellow named Hanoch Teller was no more. I use his name, and his memories. I love his family, know his friends, and use his bank account. But I am, to a very large degree, someone else.

Two cycles later, I’ve pinpointed two upshots from my dilemma resolution. The first is the paramount value of commitment, which is so vital to Judaism in general, and learning in particular. As a rule, we venerate commitment, which is what daf yomi is all about. Once it is not daily, it does not live up to its name. Once it is not entire, that is not what Shas is about.

The second conclusion is that my fear was hardly a legitimate cause to abandon the project. One of two things could have happened. Either I could have invested the time to prepare and review so that I would be intelligent and conversive in Kodshim, or I could ride the rocky road and still benefit from the journey.

Rav Hershel Schachter likes to tell the Midrash (as he puts it, because people like to hear it) of the king who ordered the townspeople to draw water from the river into a great tub. The king provided the buckets and said that he would return at the end of the day to inspect. Alas, when he came back, everyone had abandoned their post and only one loyal servant was still doing as commanded.

“Where is everyone else?” the king wanted to know.

The subject meekly responded that the townsfolk saw that the buckets had holes in them, so they concluded that the assignment was worthless.

The king immediately corrected him. “I was not looking to fill up the tub with water, but to clean out the buckets from their impurities, which is what the streaming of water through them would have accomplished.”

Even if we don’t retain the Torah we learn, Rav Schachter consoles us, while it goes through our heads — in one ear and out the other — we undergo a purification process.

On a daily basis, thanks to daf yomi, G-d’s wisdom and Chazal’s redaction are circulating in my head. To say that the impact has not been significant would be akin to asserting that Noach didn’t have a problem with the weather.

That former guy I mentioned above has undergone a transformation. From the time I was 16 years old, I have never enjoyed driving. Now I cannot wait to get into the car with Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz or Rabbi Shalom Rosner teaching the daf. For the first time in my life, I enjoy traffic. “Bring it on!” I challenge. Those all around me may be stuck, but I’m making progress.

(Originally featured in 'One Day Closer', Special Supplement, Chanuka/Siyum HaShas 5780)

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