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(Madison Square) Garden of Eden


Lublin, Poland. Once a center of Jewish life, it was one of the first Polish cities the Nazis succeeded in declaring Judenrein. Lublin once boasted a beautiful yeshiva, Chachmei (Sages of) Lublin. Its founder, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, viewed the housing situation for yeshiva students as abhorrent. Students slept in stores and ate in different people’s homes, living in poverty. The Rabbi of Lublin wanted to house yeshiva students in comfort and dignity. After all, kavod haTorah – the mitzvah of honoring the Torah – demanded no less.

The Nazis derived great pleasure from burning the library of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin in 1939. Those books represented the heart of the “Sages of Lublin.” There were so many books that the evil deed took twenty hours to complete. But in their perverted sense of values, twenty hours were a small investment to pay for the dividend of destroying Rabbi Shapiro’s work and silencing the voice of Torah study. Jewish Lublin was dead. The Rabbi of Lublin’s dream was crushed and destroyed, never to rise again.

Or perhaps not.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro had another dream. He wanted people to be well-versed in all areas of the Talmud. He wanted all Jews – whether rabbis or doctors, manual laborers or professionals – to make a daily commitment to study Torah. The Lubliner Rav envisioned a world where any Jew from anywhere in the world could meet another Jew and be able to engage in a scholarly discussion on a topic in the Talmud. 

Rabbi Shapiro pointed to the international background of every page of the Talmud. The Mishna was written in Israel while the Gemora was written in Iraq (Babylonia). Rashi, who comments on the Mishna and Gemora, lived in Mainz, while the Tosafists lived in France. The commentaries of the Maharsha and Maharam were written in Lithuania and Poland.

Rabbi Shapiro saw Torah as the great unifier of world Jewry. His dream was the Daf Yomi – the Daily Page program. Every day participants would study one page (actually two pages; a daf consists of the two pages on either side of a single sheet of paper). Over the course of seven and a half years, participants would complete all 2,711 double-sided pages of the Babylonian Talmud.

Rabbi Shapiro presented his revolutionary idea to the 600 delegates of a convention of Agudath Israel in Vienna in August of 1923. A few weeks later, on Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews embarked on a 7-plus-year journey through the wisdom of the Talmud. Jews from all walks of life made the commitment to daily study.

Seven years later, in 1930, Rabbi Shapiro had the intense pleasure of presiding over the siyum – completion celebration – in Lublin. The second siyum, in 1938, saw 20,000 Jews from across Poland gathering in Lublin to celebrate the completion of the Talmud, as well as the dedication of a new wing of the yeshiva. That celebration, however, was bittersweet, for the beloved Lubliner Rav, father of the yeshiva as well as the Daf Yomi, had passed away at the age of 47.

By the time the third siyum took place in 1945, there didn’t seem to be much to celebrate. Not only was Rabbi Shapiro gone, but the Jewish population of his city and countless others had gone up in smoke. His dream of building a magnificent Torah institution in Lublin was dead. The “Sages of Lublin” had been silenced forever.

But the Lubliner Rav’s other dream, the Daf Yomi, lived on. Even in Auschwitz, under the most hellish conditions, dedicated Jews managed to sneak a little bit of Heaven into their lives with daily study of Talmud. At great personal risk, Jews continued daily to gain strength and inspiration from learning God’s word.

And it hasn’t stopped. The study of Daf Yomi has grown exponentially. There is a daily lecture for commuters on the Long Island Railroad. Business lunches in prestigious law offices consist of a quick sandwich and an hour of Talmud. Study materials are made available in almost every medium imaginable. Fifteen years ago, I was privileged to join 20,000 of our brethren at Madison Square Garden. Seven years ago, the Garden sold out so fast that they had to have a concurrent celebration at the Nassau Coliseum.

Last Tuesday, my family and I went to the Continental Airlines Arena to participate in an event linked to the siyum at Madison Square Garden. The program was skillfully choreographed to allow some of the speeches to take place at the Garden, and some at the Continental Arena. The celebration was carried by live hook-up to cities across the globe. From Salt Lake City to Sao Paulo, from Houston to Hong Kong, from Los Vegas and Little Rock to Caracas and Kiev, an estimated 120,000 Jews gathered to participate in the fulfillment of one of the two dreams of a young rabbi from Lublin. 

Speaking of Lublin, what of Rabbi Shapiro’s other dream, the one that apparently failed, the Torah center that was destroyed by the Nazis, every Jew gone, the library reduced to ashes? The magnificent building was allowed to survive and became a medical school. But Jewish Lublin is over. Nothing but a memory, the building a relic from the past.

Well, not so fast. The music played at the Continental Arena and 20,000 Jews sang and danced. I looked up at the video monitor and saw people dancing in celebration. The caption under the picture sent a chill up my spine. Half a world away, in a beautiful building that once housed a palace of Torah learning, Torah study was again being celebrated. Yes, Torah lives on. Yes, the Lubliner Rav’s dream lives on. THEY WERE SINGING AND DANCING IN YESHIVA CHACHMEI LUBLIN!

What a celebration! Thousands upon thousands of us, united in purpose. Thousands upon thousands of us, gathered to demonstrate our love for God’s Torah. We completed the Talmud. We began it anew. The music began, and people began to dance. We sang. I felt as if the Heavens themselves opened to hear our songs. I looked up at the seats across the arena. The place was rocking. Twenty-thousand Jews testifying to the world that Torah is uplifting and eternally relevant.

And the prayers! The Maariv service is a short, 10-15 minute collection of prayers that is recited every night. If you have a minyan, a quorum of ten men, it is considered communal prayer. The leader says Borchu (“Bless God, the Blessed One”) and the others respond, “Baruch Hashem (“Blessed is God, the Blessed One, forever and ever”). Do you have any idea what it is like when the cantor’s call to prayer is answered by the equivalent of two thousand minyans? It was inspirational. It was uplifting. It was invigorating. It was also insufficient.

I did a little quick math. The Continental Arena seats about twenty thousand people. That is the equivalent of two-thirds of one percent of three million, the estimated population of our nation when we left Egypt. Think about it. Take the most inspiring moment of the evening, as we poured out our hearts in uplifting joy and prayer, and multiply it by 150. Add the fact that our ancestors were holy and righteous people, and that God revealed His Presence to His People. Those people experienced prophecy!

Can you now see that it is absolutely impossible for us to even begin to comprehend the song that Moses and the nation sang when the Red Sea split? Is it not obvious that we have no idea what it was like to experience God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai? They must have really understood what inspiration is all about. They saw infinitely more than 150 times as much as we experienced on Tuesday. So how, did those people, inspired as they were, turn right around and build a Golden Calf?

The answer is that inspiration only goes so far. It is relatively easy to be uplifted by seeing the culmination of a person’s seven-year project. It is exciting to pray with twenty thousand people. But there needs to be follow-up. There needs to be work! A big siyum is very impressive. But what is really impressive is the seven years of effort that all those participants put into studying Daf Yomi. Day in, day out, for 2,711 days, they pored over ancient texts of the Talmud, and linked themselves back to Mount Sinai.

A siyum is, in a sense, a glamorous event. Study, however, is hard work. It means staying up when you’d rather go to bed, and getting up early when you’d rather hit the alarm clock and roll over. It means a little less leisure time, and a little more Torah time. It’s not easy to become a Torah scholar. As Thomas Edison put it, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

The generation that stood at Mount Sinai was certainly inspired by that event. But that experience, as holy as it was, was not followed up with ongoing daily Torah study. As a result, it didn’t become part of their lives; it didn’t give them the strength to resist the lure of the Golden Calf.

Study Torah. Do it every day. It doesn’t matter what you study. It can be Daf Yomi, if you’re up to the task, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be Mishna. It can be the weekly Torah portion. It can be a daily halacha. Study Torah. It will change your life. You, too, can be one of the Sages of Lublin.

About the Author: Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz, a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, NewYork, is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His blog on the weekly Torah portion can be read at TorahTalk.org.


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