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.
Rabbi Dr. Naphtali Hoff