Reflections on the Siyum Hashas Parshas Vayigash

I spent this past week in New York. Traffic, terrible. Food, delicious. But that’s standard and this week was unique. You see, I left Baltimore on Sunday under a dark cloud. Shabbos afternoon, my brother dressed in Shabbos clothes with a kippah on his head, was walking down Pimlico Rd. to go to shul and a car drove by. The car stopped and the man in the passenger seat rolled down his window and poured a cup of coke on my brother. My brother joked that being Israeli he’s used to anti-Semitic violence in the form of rockets and he would take a cup of coke any day. But jokes aside, it was jarring to be the recipient of blatant anti-Semitism in our quiet community. Later that night, out with my family, we heard the frightening news of a machete-wielding man who entered a shul in Monsey and stabbed numerous people. Monday morning, I went to shul in Queens, New York, for shacharis and took the first open seat I found. It happened to be near the door. A moment later I started wondering if I had been foolish to sit so close to the door. What if someone walks in with a gun, with a knife? I am right in the line of fire.

So let’s just say anti-Semitism was on my mind.

With anti-Semitism on my mind, I initially appreciated what I read on the news later that week: “90,000 Jews Gather to Pray and Defy a Wave of Hate” blared the Thursday headline of the New York Times. Or, 90,000 Jews  gather in celebration of Talmud after anti-Semitic attacks: ‘We will not be intimidated’ –  from  Fox News.  Or this from the Times of Israel, “Under tight security, 88,000 US Jews celebrate 7.5-year Talmud cycle.”

What these major news outlets were describing was the Siyum HaShas, which means the completion of the entire Talmud. The Siyum Hashas is an event that occurs every seven and a half years celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi, a daily learning cycle of the entire Talmud. If you were to learn one page of Talmud a day, it would take seven and a half years to complete the whole thing.

The idea of learning a page of the Talmud every single day was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a leading scholar in pre-war Europe. What started off as a small initiative, taken up by a few people, has in recent years, grown in leaps and bounds, especially through the translation of the Talmud by Artscroll. And after every cycle of 7 and a half years, a huge event takes place to celebrate the accomplishment. In the past it had been held at Madison Square Gardens, and this year, on January 1st it was held in MetLife stadium and had over 93,000 participants.

It was this event, the Siyum Hashas, that was covered by these major news outlets, all describing the Siyum in light of the recent uptick of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and across the country. Again, to quote the New York Times: “On a windy and biting cold day, the gathering offered a chance to affirm their faith in the face of those terrible acts. Some believed the event contained echoes of Jews who were held in ghettos or concentration camps during the Holocaust and resisted their persecutors by saying clandestine prayers, teaching their children the Torah or furtively blowing a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana.” Or as Fox News put it, “the historic completion of the study of the entire Talmud, sending a strong message of resilience days after a stabbing in a New York rabbi’s home left five people wounded.”

But ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you something, I was there, I was at the Siyum Hashas at MetLife stadium, and what I just read to you from Fox News and the New York Times, it is fake news. It really is.

Because you see, there was virtually no mention of anti-Semitism during the entire four-and-a-half-hour program.  No mention of bricks thrown in Crown Heights or knife attacks in Monsey. Instead, speaker after speaker, video after video, there was only one theme – Talmud Torah, the study of Torah; how Torah is our lifeblood, how it is our oxygen. That’s all I heard the entire event.

Sure, there was extra security and more guards than usual. But that just provided a greater opportunity to demonstrate what a life guided by our Torah could look like; it was just an opportunity for the 90,000+ crowd to thank each and every one of those guards, which they did, something I saw with my own eyes. And yes, I, like so many walked into that event looking over my shoulder, saddened by the sight of large guns held by the security guards, but within a few moments I was swept up with the tangible joy in the air; joy that I cannot remember experiencing in my life.

As but one example, after they finished the final lines of the Talmud, the orchestra broke into joyous music and all 90,000 Jews started dancing. I had the pleasure of being on the ground level, dancing together with my son, two of my brothers and my father, and as our circle spun, looking up and looking around and watching all 90,000 people sway back and forth as one.

I wish we could have all been there. I wish you could have experienced it, just those twenty minutes of dancing for yourself because I’m not doing justice describing it. My son turned to me while we were dancing. He said, “Abba, why are you crying?” I had tears streaming down my face and I tried to explain to him that they were tears of joy. He’s young, I don’t know if he understood. But I silently prayed that he too would one day have an opportunity to cry from joy. I prayed that the experience of the Siyum would make an impression on him and he would realize that Judaism is not a faith of fear or protest or victimhood. I prayed that he would see that our faith is one of knowledge, one of joy, and one of connection; to each other and to G-d.

That was the Siyum Hashas that I experienced. Instead of Never Again, people said, let’s do this again – in seven and a half years. Instead of focusing on martyrs, the vast majority of the event focused on people, people like you and me, with busy lives, who somehow found the time to study a page of Talmud each and every day. Like my friend, the lawyer, who lives a few blocks away, and manages to find the time to teach the Daf Yomi. Or the picture I saw of a Daf Yomi class in Rabbi Teichman’s shul on Smith Avenue where one of the participants was wearing a Ravens jersey. The class was taking place during a game, and this brave soul took a break from watching the game to study. Or those who studied their daily page on a subway car or listening to it on a Podcast on their commute to work. Or the story I heard of a boy from Baltimore who went to the last Siyum Hashas with his father and he wasn’t that excited about being there. And the father told his son, “Come along with me, meet all the rabbis I want you to meet and if you do, I will give you whatever gift you want.” And after sitting through the Siyum Hashas, this disinterested 13-year-old boy was so inspired that he turned to his father and said, “Dad, you know what I want for my gift? I want you to finish the entire Talmud and do the Daf Yomi.”

Sure enough, his father did finish the Daf Yomi cycle, and this Sunday, that 13 year-old-boy who is now 20, will be starting the next cycle with his father. So do yourselves a favor and ignore the headlines. Because what I just described to you, that was the real Siyum Hashas. And that is the real Judaism; it is joyful, it is intellectually stimulating, it is emotionally-riveting. And it is something Fox News or the New York Times cannot capture or even comprehend.

In this week’s Parsha, after Yaakov hears the unbelievable news that his son is still alive and decides to move the entire family to Egypt, the Torah says that Yaakov sent Yehuda before him to prepare. “V’es Yehuda shalach l’fanav el Yosef, l’horos l’fonov Goshna.” The Torah does not tell us how Yehuda is preparing? What is he doing in Egypt before the family arrives?

The Medrash Tanchuma says something astounding. It says that Yehuda was sent to prepare a beis Talmud, a place for them to study Torah.

There’s a part of me that reads that and says, c’mon, they didn’t have a Torah yet. What kind of study hall was he preparing?

But then I imagine the authors of this Medrash, gathered in some room, about two thousand years ago, reading this passage in the Torah and asking themselves the same question we asked, what would Yehuda be preparing as his family enters this new foreign land? What would be the one thing they would need to survive? Is it security? Is it a beautiful home? Is it good jobs?

And the only thing they could imagine that the family of Yaakov would truly need is a study hall. Historically, I’m not sure. But the message is priceless and powerful.

Yes, the Egyptians would soon turn on the Jews, like the Babylonians and the Persians would do years later. And yes, they would suffer at the hands of too many nations to mention, but the sons of Yaakov and their sons and their sons would survive. Not because they rallied in defiance of their enemies. No. Don’t believe the headlines! They survived because Yehuda had already defined for them what it means to be a Jew. Their Judaism was not a reactive force, ready to fight back when attacked. Their Judaism was proactive – before they even got to Egypt, Yehuda had set up a study hall. To be a Jew means to have a foundation of Torah that cannot be shaken by all the evil winds in the world. When your Jewish identity is defined by its beauty, by a deep and daily connection to the Torah, then all the anti-Semitism in the world just bonces off of you, it makes no impact.    

Now I know that Daf Yomi, the study of one page of Talmud each day is not practical for most of us. (Not all of us, but most.) But what is the foundation of our Judaism? Can it be more positive than defiance of our enemies? And can it be more consistent than every Shabbos? Can it be a Mishna a day? A halacha a day? A chapter or even a few verses of the Torah each day? A mitzvah a day? Something! Something beautifully Jewish that we can engage in every day of our lives.

Yes, there is growing anti-Semitism, and not just in the world, but down the turnpike and even down the block. But from the inception of our nation, our most effective tool was not to simply fight back – although that’s important as well. Our most effective tool was to set up a study hall before we even entered a new land. Our most effective tool was to strengthen who we are, not who we are against or who is against us. Arguing over who is more anti-Semitic, white nationalists or Hebrew Israelites did not keep the Jewish People alive throughout the millenia. Arguing over Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Rava, Rashi and the Rambam, did. Our most effective tool has been by immersing ourselves in our legacy, in our tradition, in what makes us who we are, and that is the Torah. In the words of the great 10th century Babylonian leader of the Jewish People, Rav Saadia Gaon, “We are a nation only because of our Torah.”

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I mentioned earlier that Rabbi Meir Shapiro was the one who started the Daf Yomi. The truth is it was his mother who started the Daf Yomi. (h/t Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for this beautiful story -) The story goes that one day as a little boy, Meir Shapiro woke up and found his mother crying. He asked her what’s wrong and she said that the Melamed, his teacher, wasn’t available that day. “Mommy,” he said, “he’ll be back tomorrow. It’s just one day.”

His mother shook her head. “Meir’le, you’re too young, you don’t understand. Each day is precious. If you miss a day of learning, you can never make up that day.” And with those words, and with those tears, the Daf Yomi movement was born.

May we recognize the importance of connecting to our heritage each and every day, and may our tears of yearning for more; more Judaism, more Torah, and more G-dliness in our lives, may they be transformed into tears of true unbridled joy.