Thursday, January 25, 2018

PARSHAS BESHALACH - SHABBOS SHIRAH - TU B’SHVAT 5778


“RABBI’S MUSINGS (& AMUSINGS)”
Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Beshalach/Shabbos Shirah
10 Shevat 5778/January 26, 2018

As I was leaving shul one morning recently, a fellow stopped me and asked me the following question:
“I’m a BT (Ba’al Teshuva)”, he began, “I learn Gemara, and it’s quite challenging for me. I know that I’m not going to be a great Torah scholar, and Gemara is particularly challenging and daunting. I have learned that Torah study brings a feeling of internal happiness and joy. Indeed, I feel uplifted and can’t get enough of mitzvos, and I love being a religious Jew. But, where is the joy in learning Gemara for someone like me? It’s an uphill battle every day, and I find it very arduous and challenging. I would appreciate any chizuk you could give me.”
My immediate response was that it was too important a question for me to give him a flippant answer on my way out of shul. I told him I wanted to give his question worthy thought and then I would reply to him.
The truth is that it’s a question many of our yeshiva bochurim grapple with as well. They may know that one day their learning can, and hopefully will, bring them a surge of joy and internal happiness. They hopefully see it on the faces of older students and rabbeim – the unique blissful happiness that Torah study brings.
However, especially when beginning, and trying to decipher a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew discussions involving precise analysis of biblical interpretation, that often requires abstract thinking, it can be extremely challenging. This is all the more true in a world which has a hard time sustaining attention for more than a three minute, humorous, or incredible You Tube clip. Where is the joy to be found in the intense struggle? Sure, anything great requires patience and the ability to delay instant pleasure. But is there a feeling of happiness and satisfaction that can be felt just from the mere participation in this challenging, spiritual endeavor?
I believe the answer to the question connects with a more fundamental question regarding religion itself. If all of Torah Judaism had to be summarized in one word - all of our constant efforts to improve our davening, learning, doing chesed, performing mitzvos, keeping halacha, etc. - I would venture to think that the word is connection!
Our goal is to live a connected life - where we feel uplifted, through a feeling of connection with Hashem and to our fellow Jews, via Torah observance.
Imagine if somehow, we were able to meet our great-great-great grandfather for a few minutes. Our lives couldn’t be more different. We try to communicate, but the language barrier is the least of it. He comes from a primitive world without electricity, a life of abject poverty, subjected to blatantly anti-Semitic laws that confine him to a ghetto, and render him a second-class citizen at best. His days are filled with difficult physical labor, and he spends his nights immersed in Torah study.
I, on the other hand, live in a democracy, in relative affluence and comfort, where if a child doesn’t go to Florida for midwinter he is deprived. My world’s greatest challenge is its inability to appreciate what it has, and its struggles with mental health.
What do we have to talk about? He tries to tell me about the latest decrees against the Jews, and I try telling him about the upcoming Super Bowl, and whether Brady can pull it off for New England, and if the Yankees have a shot this year.
But then suddenly after a moment of awkward silence, my ancestor asks “parsha?” I answer what parsha it is, and he begins rattling off the words of a Rashi I am familiar with, and am excitedly able to finish offThen he says, “Gemara?” I reply “Kesubos”. He suddenly smiles and starts talking about a discussion in the Gemara and Tosafos’ comment. We are at once literally ‘on the same page’.
Suddenly, despite being generations and worlds apart, we have found holy common ground, and a point of connection.
That is part of the joy of learning Gemara, or any part of Torah. No matter what we are learning, when we engage in the study of those ancient texts, we are connecting to our people traversing time - past and future. Of course, we are also connecting to our Creator in the most sublime manner possible as well.
There is undoubtedly joy in accomplishment and achieving mastery of Torah. But, even learning a few lines on a random page contains the joy of connection, which is ultimately what all our efforts in Avodas Hashem should lead us to feel.
When we open a page of Gemara, we are staring at the same hallowed words that Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rambam, Vilna Gaon, Chasam Sofer, Rav Hirsch, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman learned.
It’s the same words that were, and are, taught in Babylonia, Persia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, Australia, Chili, Eretz Yisroel, New York, and Los Angeles.
That joyous feeling of connection can imbue in a person a feeling of internal connection, even as he gruelingly tries to decipher the challenging Aramaic code-like concepts in the gemara. It’s the joy of transcending time and place, discovering and fostering the greatest feeling of connection that one can attain.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,

              R’ Dani and Chani Staum      

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