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Carriers Of The Talmudic Torch

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Earlier this month the London Games were all the rage. Tens of thousands descended upon Great Britain’s crown jewel to witness the Olympics and cheer for their respective countrymen.

Curious onlookers would have their questions answered about whether a Jamaican runner would set the fastest sprint time ever recorded, or if an accomplished American swimmer would take home more career gold medals that any other Olympian in the history of the games.

Of course, there was also much speculation as to whether the current version of the Dream Team could match the original and bring home this nation’s assumed birthright, a gold medal in men’s basketball.

Coverage of the games was incessant. Thousands of media members packed into The Big Smoke to catch all of the action and transmit it live to their respective viewers and listeners worldwide. And as the storylines became more compelling, the ratings increased, to the point where the daily medal count actually occupied more news time than the ongoing bickering and political jabbing between our much-maligned president and his affluent but not particularly transparent antagonist.

Concurrent with some of the athletic hoopla was another event that packed stadiums and theaters. That celebration, however, was not attended by roaring crowds wearing face paint and waving colorful flags.

Rather, those buildings – which included New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv, Binyanei Ha’Umah in Jerusalem, theaters in Chicago, Los Angeles, London and other large Jewish communities – as well as satellite hookups in shuls and social halls throughout the world drew individuals who had either completed an entire cycle of the Talmud or were demonstrating their support for those who had.

While the differences between those who filled the stands at the 30th Olympiad and the more than 150,000 individuals who attended a siyum haShas were plain to see and will be discussed at greater length below, there were some noteworthy parallels between the Olympic athletes and those who had spent the past seven and a half years completing their study of the Talmud.

Success on the Olympic level requires many things. One, naturally, is abundant talent and skill. Another is the fortune of having someone (parent, coach, etc.) to help the athlete achieve his or her dreams through advocacy, guidance and financial support.

But talent and advocacy alone are almost never sufficient to bring home the gold. For someone to reach and succeed on the world’s largest athletic stage, he or she must develop and maintain a comprehensive plan for success, committing to an ongoing regimen of hard work despite the many invariable challenges and setbacks.

These same qualities, l’havdil, are required for sustained success in the realm of limud haTorah. Rabbi Yissochor Frand spoke eloquently on this point at the MetLife siyum. He referenced the great late Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, who achieved international renown for his saintliness and continuous devotion to Torah study despite a lengthy bout with Parkinson’s disease.

The rosh yeshiva would challenge people, even those well into their retirement years, to develop rigorous personal plans for Torah study and achievement. Applying this idea to the siyum, Rav Frand noted that it was impossible for any participant to achieve this tremendous accomplishment without going into the process with a clear plan about how to achieve his goal. He also needed to secure the support and advocacy of the siyum’s unsung heroes, his wife and children, for this to happen. And now that he had finally accomplished his goal, it was time to establish a new, improved plan, one that would raise the bar even higher, through a greater level of study and review.

But of course the differences between the Olympics and the siyum far outweighed the similarities in a classic “we run and they run” dichotomy. In the latter instance, the audience was not a band of raucous bystanders whose sole role was to offer moral support for their favorite team and take in the action. Here, the audience and the “performers” were one and the same, assembling to celebrate their collective achievement, receive inspiration from some of the Torah world’s most accomplished scholars, and strengthen each other in the quest for more spiritual gold in the years ahead.

There was no “us against them” but rather an unparalleled unity that had emerged directly from our common bond to the Torah.

Another key distinction between the two events was the motivation that inspired the behaviors of each group of “performers.” In the former context, athletes were driven by personal glory – the ability to achieve international recognition as a leading competitor in their respective field. Many, undoubtedly, hoped to parlay their victory into real gold, the financial windfall enjoyed by the most successful and popular athletes.

For the “champion of the daf,” however, there is no such windfall, financial or otherwise. Outside of some personal recognition by family and friends (not to mention encouragement received from our leading sages), the main motivator in this process was each individual’s desire to better himself through a rigorous commitment to study.

But the greatest distinction between the two events was the underlying values and origins of each. The roots of the Olympics lie in the ancient Greek games, where religious sacrifices to mythical gods accompanied sporting events. The Daf Yomi cycle, in stark contrast, is a process that traces itself to Har Sinai, the most significant and lofty moment in our nation’s history, and the source of our national identity and vitality.

The ancient Greeks believed in a primitive form of paganism, with human-like gods who conducted themselves as rash and irresponsible people. Their deities ate, drank, and engaged in loving relationships. They could be bribed, fooled, or, at times, disregarded. They entered into conflicts like regular people, without the social and moral responsibilities that humans possessed. The gods were even the regular subject of derisive scorn from Greek thinkers and writers.

Ethically, Greek life was corrupt as well. It was a society of unprecedented openness and unabashed promiscuity. The human body was considered a means for artistic expression, with no need for privacy. Athletic prowess was openly touted in the Olympics. Such an inverted sense of morality affected other areas as well. Children who were born imperfect were viewed as a burden on society and killed. Aristotle rationalized this as a means of countering overpopulation.

Such thought and conduct presented a shell shock to many of the societies in which it came into contact. None, however, would be affected more than the Jewish people, for whom Hellenism would serve as a destabilizing force unlike any other in our history until modern times.

* * * * *

For the Jewish people, the Greeks were more foreign than any group they had ever come into contact with. They differed on every level, including such key areas as religious beliefs and social values. The following represents a partial list of differences that existed between the two groups.

Belief in a Higher Authority – The Jews were monotheistic, believing in one all-powerful, omniscient God. The Greeks were polytheistic, worshiping multiple deities.

Nature of God­­ – The Jewish God was incorporeal, possessing no physical attributes or limitations. He was perfect and holy. Greek gods were human in form, behavior, and interests.

Source of the Good – Jews: Knowledge of the good comes from God and His Torah. Greeks: Man’s Intellect provides such knowledge.

Reward and Punishment – The Jews believed God is interested in human affairs. He rewards good behavior and punishes misdeeds. The Greeks maintained that the gods were not interested in human behavior and left people to their own devices.

To the Jews, human beings were created in the image of God. To the Greeks, deities were fashioned in the image of human beings. In the Jews’ mind, the physical world was something to be refined and elevated. The Greeks viewed the physical world as faultless, needing no further perfection.

In a Jewish state founded on preserving its religious purity, the Greek gods, with their wanton, capricious behavior, were wildly offensive. In a Jewish society firmly opposed to public indecency, Greek indiscretions in this area were shockingly distasteful. For a Jewish religion that singles out illegitimate relationships as a crime, the Greek attitude toward such relationships was inconceivable.

Greek hegemony in the Holy Land (beginning with the conquest of Alexander the Great) meant increased Hellenistic influence in the country. Prior to Alexander’s annexation, Greek colonists were relatively few in number and had limited their scope of influence to the coast. They did not penetrate the internal areas occupied by the Jews and Samaritans.

Beginning during the reign of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander’s generals and successors), however, their span of influence widened. Cities such as Gadara and Philadelphia in Trans-Jordan, and Beth-Shean in Samaria, took on a strong Greek flavor. They joined the coastal cities Ashkelon, Acco, and others in tightening the Hellenistic noose around the Jewish heartland.

On the whole, the Jewish population in Judah successfully resisted these Hellenistic inroads. This was by no means a trivial accomplishment. The vast majority of conquered peoples outside of Israel willingly allowed themselves to be Hellenized. Only the Jews’ ever-present drive and sense of mission kept them from following suit.

There were, however, exceptions. A growing percentage of Jews, primarily from the upper classes, began to progressively embrace aspects of Hellenistic culture.

First, they adopted certain external trappings, including speaking the Greek language, participating in Greek festivals, and using Greek names. Over time, they chose outright assimilation, indulging in the imported Greek culture, visiting gymnasiums, etc.

This group was driven by distinct aims. Most were motivated by secular and economic causes. They saw Hellenism as their first-class ticket to new opportunities for social mobility and wealth. A smaller faction was inspired by an appreciation of the external beauty promoted by Hellenism. The grandeur of Greek architecture, in the form of theaters, stadiums and gymnasiums, captured their passions. Greek artistic and cultural expression, not to mention its strong emphasis on philosophic debate and understanding, seized their imaginations.

* * * * *

Perhaps the most painful aspect of the war that would ultimately follow was that it was not just a war against the Greeks. It was a civil war as well. Jews loyal to their ancestral faith fought against their Hellenistic coreligionists.

Those who remained loyal to their tradition were nationalistic in their quest to preserve their religious – and, eventually, political – independence. The anti-national Hellenists, on the other hand, were willing to sacrifice the very identity of their religion and nationality in order to achieve their assimilatory goals.

From this struggle, a new, “Jewish” definition of hero would emerge – individuals who summon up extraordinary strength of character at pivotal moments. Our heroes were and are bastions of the spirit, men and women who refuse to buckle under trying conditions. It is a definition that has stood the test of time.

Where did this great bravery and moral courage come from? In his address to the Chicago siyum, Rav Uren Reich, rosh yeshiva of Woodlake Village (NJ), spoke of the true nature of Torah study. In the process he referenced a verse that was designed to comfort us following the harrowing predictions of Parashas Bechukosai:

“But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God” (Vayikra 26:44).

Rav Reich quoted Chizkuni, who asked a seemingly insolent question. How can Hashem say He will neither reject nor annihilate us? Has not history proven otherwise? Have we not been forced to endure every form of unspeakable suffering known to man? Did we not lose every precious gift that had been bestowed upon us, including the Temple, our Holy Land, etc.?

He answered that there was one special gift we never lost, one constant reminder that we remained His nation, despite our many sins – the holy Torah. And we were spared that gift because Jewish life would not be possible without it. Taking away our Torah was tantamount to our complete destruction, Heaven forbid.

The Jews who lived during the time of the Hellenistic struggle understood that they were not simply fighting for the preservation of their culture. Their fight was for their very existence; their battle would determine whether the Torah, the true life source of our nation, would continue to provide us with its life-sustaining teachings and direction. For that, they were willing to risk their lives, because a life without Torah was a life not worth living.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 will live on in the minds of the world at large as one of many dates on which hundreds of modern-day Olympians transfixed the minds of viewers the world over with their unique blend of strength, speed, skill and courage. It was a day of celebration and disappointment, with gold for some and no acclamation for many others.

But for the tens of thousands of Jews who assembled throughout the world on that evening, the date will live on as a day of celebration and fulfillment for all who recognize the true gift we uniquely possess, our holy Torah, and the efforts that were necessary for us to properly acquire it.

They celebrate and we celebrate. Mazal Tov.

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at nhoff@torahday.org.

About the Author: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting (www.ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at President@ImpactfulCoaching.com.


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