Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 1

Crossing G-D’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part I

I was only mildly miffed that somehow they forgot to include me in the illustrious list of speakers at the Siyum HaShas.  In retrospect, given my 3:45 AM return home, I see that it might have been difficult to fit me in. Nevertheless, despite all the wonderful words of inspiration that were imparted, there is a neglected aspect that I might have touched upon had I been able to impart my wisdom to the magnificent gathering.  That aspect has to do with the momentous venue that we gathered in – the huge 90,000 seat Met-Life Stadium, home of the NY Giants and NY Jets of the National Football League.

Several of the speakers made the fairly obvious point regarding the famous prayer of Rav Nechunia ben Hakannah that is recited at every Siyum:

מודים אנחנו לפניך ה' אלקינו ששמת חלקנו מיושבי בית המדרש, ולא שמת חלקנו מיושבי קרנות. שאנו משכימים והם משכימים, אנו משכימים לדברי תורה, והם משכימים לדברים בטלים. אנו עמלים והם עמלים, אנו עמלים ומקבלים שכר, והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר. אנו רצים והם רצים, אנו רצים לחיי העולם הבא, והם רצים לבאר שחת . . .

We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners [idle shopkeepers who waste their time in frivolous conversation] [1]... We arise early and toil in Torah, while they rise early for worthless items. .. We labor... and receive a reward, while they labor and will not be rewarded.  We run . . . towards eternal life, while they run to the grave...

Although not stated explicitly, clearly they were reflecting on the differences between the typical beer-drinking, tailgate-partying NFL crowd – ready to cheer on their muscle-bound heroes as they try to move a small pigskin ball while avoiding intimidating 300 pound mountains of muscle intent on pummeling them to the ground – and those who were there to honor the scholarly, spiritual, intellectually inclined thousands who are heroes of another kind. 

And heroes, they truly are.  The celebrated thousands are mostly ordinary folk who face the same stresses of life as all of us, while relentlessly engaging in an often difficult and complex daily intellectual pursuit – no matter how busy or tired or stressed out – for a long period of time.  Anyone who has either tried to “do the Daf” or has a close relative or friend who does, can attest to the sheer determination and will that is required to make it through any medium size mesechta, let alone the entire Talmud.  Certainly it is true, for the most part, that the contrast between the siyum and events that normally take place at MetLife Stadium could not be starker.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there was more to learn about the MetLife venue than merely to congratulate ourselves on our higher calling.  In fact, a Daf Yomi finalist has more than a little in common with the elite athletes that make it to the NFL.  It might behoove us to examine the aspects of championship sports that might be helpful to us, before quickly throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  If for no other reason than my sneaky suspicion that more than a few of us in the stadium shared a secret propensity to occasionally watch an NFL game, and found it exciting to be sitting in the cathedral that was built to house our local teams, I pondered what could we garner from this experience.

But first, it is instructive to reflect on what positive role, if any, organized sport plays in our society.  Our country is currently reeling in the aftermath of the Sandusky trial, in which one of college football’s greatest coaches and programs have been exposed as complicit in the terrible abuse of students they claimed to help.  Many are questioning the propriety of the incredible amounts of money and effort that go into college athletic programs, that all too often produce uneducated jocks who have little or nothing to show for their four years in college.  As for professional sports, in some ways they can be summed up by the proverbial statement of a sportscaster that “My job is to create the illusion that it matters”.[2]  It is of constant amazement to – say learners of Daf Yomi – that millions of people get crazed in their passion over which group of overpaid jocks won a ball game, and can discuss the statistics and odds for hours, while their eyes glaze over at even the most non-trivial Torah thought.  Truly, We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners …”

Nevertheless, although not in vogue in the Yeshiva world [3], it is well known among educators worldwide that so long as it is kept in proper perspective, sports play a very important part in training youngsters to strive for excellence and push themselves beyond preconceived limits in the pursuit of a goal.  Whether it is in garnering the physical and mental toughness to keep practicing a skill until it is mastered, or the pushing of one’s mind and body towards ever increasing levels of strength and endurance, or the importance of strategy and delaying short term pleasure to accomplish a long term goal, or in learning the importance of teamwork and appreciating the role that everyone has in the mutual success, to balancing the different demands on one’s time, attention, energy and passion, organized sports can provide excellent training in the development of a mature, responsible adult who is ready to take on the challenges of life. 

Furthermore, the level of dedication that it takes for anyone to reach the pinnacle of their chosen avocation, as represented by making it to the roster of an NFL team, is worthy of respect and admiration.   Anyone who finds success on a major league team did not get there by innate talent alone, but by combining G-d given gifts with the expending of countless hours of blood, sweat and tears to achieve that station in life.  It is perhaps that pursuit of excellence, and the toughness of mind and spirit, in addition to body, that is required to win, that attracts the attention of many famous intellectuals who are know to be rabid sports fans, and that attracts so many to watch the talent and skill on display at the Olympics.[4]

If that is the case, then what might be the deeper p’shat in Rav Nechunia ben Hakannah’s words?  I might suggest that it is encapsulated primarily in the last stitch of his comments.   One might correctly appreciate the training of an athlete as time well spent, but only if the final goal is truly a worthy one.  If the goal is merely to improve one’s mental and physical capabilities so that one can excel in this-worldly activities, it is ultimately for naught.  In the words of Kohelet, anything that is purely for תחת השמש, under the sun – for improving a temporal life of here today and gone tomorrow – is ultimately valueless, or  הבל הבלים.  But if the goal is to bring us to the World to Come, and to get there with the maximum of accomplishment in this world, then perhaps more than grudging admiration might be granted for those who rise early and work and run to prepare themselves for a Higher calling – so that they have the maximum of energy and abilities to serve Hashem in this world.

Surely our heroes are those who sacrifice all for a Torah way of life and achieve greatness, be it through the daily commitment to Daf Yomi or the much greater commitment that it takes to become a Gadol.  But perhaps there is room, along with that pursuit, to gain inspiration from those who have showed what hard work, determination, and sheer will can accomplish in turning their bodies into a strong and finely tuned instrument.

The relationship between the ethic of spiritual, intellectual striving and that of beauty, grace, physical excellence is a tension that has always been there, most famously during the Hasmonean period tension between Judaism & Hellenism and much earlier between the sons of Noah.  Pure energy, as represented by Ham was to be made subservient to the spiritual Shem, and the esthetic Yaphet.  The ideal is expressed as
 יַפְתְּ אֱלֹקים לְיֶפֶת, וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי-שֵׁם, to be able to appreciate the beauty of Yaphet, and make it subservient within the Tents of Shem/Israel, by bringing an appreciation of the good aspects of sport, art and beauty under the influence of Torah.   As we sat in a great tent of Ham & Yaphet, in order to appreciate the great achievements of Shem, may we look forward to the time that we are able to fully actualize the blessing of harmonizing all of the these in the proper way as in Hashem's eternal plan.

[1]               For an excellent and informative analysis of this somewhat harsh characterization, followed by the request that they be lowered into the pit for eternal damnation,  see
[2]               Although this is a well known quote, I could not find the source.
[3]               Note to self: And you were wondering why they did not ask you to speak . . .
[4]           Clearly there are many professional athletes who are embarrassing boors and who give sports a bad name.   There are many reasons for that, including the obscene amounts of money and idolization thrust upon them at a young age, that go beyond the scope of this essay.  But the potential for greatness in sports is undeniably there, and ought not be cavalierly dismissed as we contemplated MetLife stadium.

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