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The Siyum HaShas and Parshas Vayigash: Preparing the Way, One Step at a Time

This week, Klal Yisrael celebrated a tremendous milestone in Torah learning and spiritual growth with the 13th global Siyum HaSas, which took place around the world. I was privileged to sit among the nearly 100,000 people who gathered in MetLife stadium, half numb with cold, yet warmed to the core at the incredible showing of love for Torah, for Judaism, and for each other. Jews of every stripe (literally - you know you saw that Where’s Waldo picture) from across the tri-state area and beyond came together to celebrate the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of daily Daf Yomi learning. I found myself in tears throughout the event, overwhelmed with emotions ranging from love for Hashem’s wacky, wonderful, stubborn, unique, beautiful, astoundingly resilient children, to hope for our future, sadness for our current struggles, pride in our strength and power, awe at the greatness of our investment in Torah, and overwhelming gratitude to be part of such an amazing nation.

As Gedolei Yisrael stood up to give words of Torah and Chizuk, as the stands reverberated with the heartfelt cries of “Amen, yehei shmei raba,” and “Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim,” as thousands of Jews, so many of us strangers and yet so deeply, intimately connected, sang together, “Ma Ahavti Sorasecha,” and “Vetaher Libeinu L’avdecha B’Emes,” I could not help but be awed by the incredible longevity of Torah Judaism. How is it, I mused, that our puny nation, repeatedly battered by winds of hate, continuously oppressed, hounded, targeted, has managed not only to survive, but to thrive through this seemingly endless Galus? And how, even if we have survived physically, have we managed to preserve and even expand the fundamentality of Torah learning throughout these thousands of years?

In a powerful and poignant speech at the MetLife Siyum, Rav Yissocher Frand shlit”a spoke about the endurance of Talmud Torah throughout the generations. Specifically, he recounted how one of the first decrees the Nazis made when they took over Poland was to forbid Orthodox Jews to receive visas to leave German-occupied territories. Their reasoning, which they made clear, was that they could not allow the “Talmudists,” those Jews who studied the Talmud, to bring their Torah learning to America. The Nazis knew that if they allowed Talmidei Chachamim to escape, to survive, then Torah would survive, as well. And they were right.

How was it that we were able to rise from the ashes and continue to perpetuate Torah learning in such a powerful way?

In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov prepares to take his family down to Egypt to reunite with his son, Yosef. Yaakov knows, as has been passed down from Avraham, that his descent to Mitzrayim will not be a temporary trip; rather, it marks the start of Galus Mitzrayim. Chazal tell us that the Jewish people did not change their names, their language, or their dress while in Egypt. Shevet Levi, who did not participate in the Shibud, continued to learn Torah throughout the 210 years of slavery. Clearly, Yaakov did something right to preserve his family’s values in such a way that they withstood the tests of time and the influences of Egypt.

The key to Yaakov’s preparation is found in Perek 46, Pasuk 28: “Es Yehuda Shalach… Lihoros Lifanav Goshnah,” Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead, to Goshen. Rashi notes that Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead to establish a Yeshiva for Torah study. This step was essential in preserving the values of Bnei Yisrael, in fortifying the Jews as they descended to Mitzrayim, and it is the secret to our spiritual preservation throughout the generations.

When faced with challenges, we must prepare as best as we can for those challenges, in a manner known in DBT as Coping Ahead. The idea of Daf Yomi, daily study of one double-sided page of Gemara that would conclude in the completion of all of Shas in seven and a half years, was originated by Rav Meir Shapira zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin in Lublin, Poland, site of the first ever Siyum Hashas in 1931. When he first proposed his Daf Yomi idea, Rav Meir Shapira received a lot of push back. And yet, eighty nine years later, the Daf Yomi is perhaps one of the most popular avenues of Torah study in the world. To hear thousands of men say the Kaddish as they celebrated their Siyum made it crystal clear: this idea works, and it is perhaps one of the clearest indications that its institution in many ways preserved Torah Judaism in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The Nazis were 100% right that, when given the opportunity, our primary means of coping ahead is to spread Torah, and bring it with us wherever we go. And they were right that, if Torah is allowed to be spread, we will prevail.

The key to spreading that Torah, however, and to enabling us to benefit from it, is that Torah must be accessible. The beauty and wisdom of the Daf Yomi is that it breaks down the tremendous undertaking of Shas into smaller, palatable pieces. The deeper beauty of what Klal Yisrael has done with the Daf is that through our ingenuity and drive for Torah learning, we have created even more initiatives to make learning Daf Yomi easier and more accessible for even more people.

The concept of Daf Yomi endures because it provides a structure, a clear path, and makes the sometimes intimidatingly vast world of Torah just that much more manageable and available for all kinds of Jews. As Rav Frand powerfully reminded the Olam in his Siyum speech, the key to true, lasting growth in Torah (and in life) is to “not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” So often, we become caught up in striving for perfection, and we lose sight of what it means to do the best that we can, with what we have, to be growing, connected Jews. In order for any idea to be truly sustainable, it must be something we can reasonably do, and we must be willing to forgo perfection and accept the best that we can reasonably do.

Our ancestors, like Yehuda, lived and struggled and persevered in order to build foundations of Torah in the Diaspora. Their coping ahead enabled us to be born into a generation where hundreds of thousands of Jews were Zocheh to finish Shas this week. Even if we are not ourselves doing Daf Yomi, we have the ability to support those who are, and even more importantly, we can undertake to internalize the message of the Daf Yomi concept.

As we look for ways to grow and advance in our Avodas Hashem, let us recognize that the best way to grow is in small steps. Over the course of seven and a half years, one can finish Talmud Bavli one time, by learning just one two-sided page of Gemara each day. Each of us has our one page, that Midah we are trying to perfect, a Mitzvah we are trying to learn more about, or keep to a more stringent extent. Psychologically, we might fall into the trap of that distorted way of thinking, telling ourselves that if we cannot do it fully, or immediately, it is not worthwhile. But, we cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Small steps, proactive steps, can build eternity. May our step-by-step growth and Torah learning pave the way for the final redemption, which we know is soon to come.

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