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To siyum or not to siyum is NOT the question Parshas Devarim

During the Nine Days of Mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, it is forbidden, according to Ashkenazic custom to eat meat (except for Shabbos). However, there is a loophole – if one attends a siyum, the celebration of the completion of a Mesechet or Tractate of Gemara, they can, at the siyum, eat meat.

Growing up, I recall friends letting me know they were making a siyum and inviting me to a private nine-days barbecue for their immediate friends and family. More recently this dispensation has arguably gotten out of hand. There are allegedly meat restaurants that make a siyum every hour so that the diners can eat meat. There are organizations that schedule their gala dinner during the Nine Days, advertising the unique opportunity to have a meat dinner during this time. They offer a meat dinner by inviting someone to join them and make a siyum. Someone recently suggested having a Nine Days hotel, with non-stop siyumim taking place so no one will heaven forbid go a week, or even a day without a steak.

We can chalk it up to an increase in materialistic hedonism in our communities, but the truth is, this has been going on for some time. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the Aruch Hashulchan, the most important Halachic works of the 19th century, lambasted these siyumim that were taking place in his time. He writes: “How are we not ashamed? Is it not true that many of the nations of the world have many weeks during which they refrain from meat, milk, and eggs? And we, the Jewish People, about whom the Torah says, “You shall be holy” are not capable of holding ourselves back for eight days in the year in memory of the Beis HaMikdash?!” (h/t R. Rael Blumenthal)

Now I’ll be honest, I am not so bothered by the eating of meat at a siyum during the Nine Days. Full disclosure, I made a siyum myself the other day. Sorry for not inviting you all… What troubles me is the mindset that often underpins this practice. You see, there are three possible mindsets when it comes to Jewish Law. The first often sounds like this:

“Rabbi, I need a heter, a loophole. I want to do X, I recognize it may not be ideal. Can you help me figure out a way to do what I want to do without transgressing any Jewish laws?”

This is what I call the ‘obstacle course mindset.’ Jewish Law being the obstacle course, me, with all my wishes and desires being the person stuck in this obstacle course, and the purpose of Judaism is to avoid getting stuck in the obstacle course while I try to get to my destination.  

I commend the people who live this way, I do. They obviously believe the Torah must be abided by. It is far better than those in the second category, who see the Torah as a ‘virtual reality obstacle course.’ This is the group of people who when they hit a wall in the obstacle course, they just remove the VR set from their head. To them, the Torah is not real, it’s a set of recommendations for when it’s not too inconvenient. So, I do admire people who believe with a full heart that the Torah must be observed at all times. But there is obviously something missing when our mindset is how can I do what I want without violating any Jewish law.

At one point I was using an app to help me eat more healthily. The way this app works is that you are given a certain amount of points each day and each food you eat costs you a certain amount of points. It’s a great app; you can scan the barcode of the food you’re eating and it will tell you how many points it will cost you and it really forces you to think about your food choices. But not all foods are in the database. Sometimes you have to input what you ate and try to figure out how many points it should cost you. And I remember one day, I was already low on points and I was kind of hungry, so I fudged the system: “Reeeeally, it’s not ice cream – which would cost me like 45 points. It’s really just churned milk, which is 2 points, and some sugar, 3 points, and some flavoring, another point. So really, it’s just six points.”

After devouring two pints of ice cream, I remember feeling quite silly. Who am I fooling? I am doing this because it’s good for me. This system was set up to help me eat more healthily. The only one who loses if I game the system is me.

So often we’re trying to game Halacha, Jewish law, but we’re only gaming ourselves in the process.

This week’s parsha begins with Moshe debriefing with the Jewish People before he hands over the reigns to Yehoshua. He spends some time reminding them of their many sins with the hope that they would grow from them and become better people. But one episode which he reviews seems a little out of place. He reminds them how at one point they shifted from Moshe being the only one who would answer all their questions to a system that trained thousands of others to address Halachic questions. That seems brilliant. That seems very efficient. That does not seem like a sin.  

But the commentators explain that yes, while it was very efficient, the fact that the Jewish People were completely comfortable with losing Moshe as the one they would approach with all their Halachic questions betrayed their real mindset towards the Torah – they saw it as an obstacle course. They saw the Torah as a burden, a set of restrictions that we were born into. And if that’s all they are, I rather just go wherever I find the greatest leniency, the most convenient pathway to avoid all those cumbersome laws. The last person I’d go to with my questions is Moshe!

 Had they really appreciated the Torah as the word of G-d, had they really appreciated the Torah as a set of laws that guide us towards the most elevated, ethical, and spiritual life, wouldn’t it be best to go to the source? Or at least as close to the source as possible?

The third and correct mindset is that the Torah is the pathway to life; not just in the world to come, but here on earth. The Torah and Mitzvos are meant to guide us through this jungle of confusion called life and give us clarity. How often are we unsure what is right and what is wrong in a given circumstance? How difficult is it to elevate ourselves and not get sucked into the rat race, hedonism, nihilism? Moshe was reprimanding the Jews for not having the right mindset; The Torah is not an obstacle course, it’s the most glorious, helpful, uplifting pathway known to mankind.

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There is nothing wrong with eating meat at a siyum during the Nine Days. What is wrong is that we are living in a world in which it is so hard to see how the Torah helps us. What is wrong is that we live in a reality where what is the most precious gift feels like a terrible burden. What is wrong is that deep down or not so deep down, we all want to feel connection to the Author of those laws, but we can’t. What is wrong is how we confuse our physical hunger for a steak with spiritual hunger for G-d, and we end filling our life up with things that we know will never satisfy us.

Obstacle course mindset, VR obstacle course mindset, or the Pathway to Life mindset. In this world as we know it, it takes an incredible amount of effort to see the Torah in its true light. It is so much easier to be troubled by laws that grate on our “sophisticated” ears. It is so much more natural to see the Torah as a set of cumbersome restrictions getting in the way of my personal joy and satisfaction. And that is what we are mourning tonight and tomorrow.

The Bais Hamikdash, the Temple, was the nexus, the connection point between heaven and earth, between the physical world, and what exists behind it. When it stood, we didn’t need imagination or mindsets. We felt G-d’s presence as we studied His Torah or ate Kosher food. We stood in prayer and knew that we were talking to the Divine. We saw each sin as a flaming fire that would damage our pristine soul.

On Tisha B’av, I mourn for the disconnect. I mourn for the fact that I don’t see my sins as toxic waste eroding my soul. I mourn for the fact that I don’t see the explosive impact of a single Mitzvah. I mourn for the fact that I don’t notice the angels dancing very time I overcome a challenge. I mourn for the fact that I don’t feel Hashem holding me up in dark times and smiling with me in times of joy. I mourn for the fact that I sometimes find myself in an obstacle course instead of the pathway to an amazingly fulfilling life.

The rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash begins when we realize what it is that we are missing. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days.