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A page of Gemara

Although January 1 is an important date on the secular calendar, it usually has little significance in the Torah community. Other than getting used to writing a different number on checks and having an extra day off (in chutz la’aretz), it generally does not engender much excitement.

This year, of course, is different. January 1 is the date of the grand Siyum HaShas. It marks a time to celebrate the Torah in an almost unprecedented way, as hundreds of thousands join in celebrating the tremendous accomplishment of tens of thousands of learners.

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Just a generation ago, the notion that one would be able to fill a sports stadiums for a Siyum HaShas was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Survivors of the Holocaust thought the Torah world would never be resurrected amidst the secular culture of the U.S. and Israel.

So next Wednesday’s event is not just a siyum. It’s a colossal statement that screams, “We have not only survived; we have grown and prospered! No longer are the Orthodox the poor step-siblings of the Reform and Conservative movements. We are a huge, dynamic, and growing force. Indeed, we are the future of the Jewish people!”

But there’s another message in this siyum. It is being celebrated at a major football stadium, which means several of the speakers are sure to invoke the famous prayer of Rav Nechunia ben Hakanah recited at every siyum:

“We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study and not among those who sit in the corners.… We arise early and toil in Torah, while they rise early and engage in worthless pursuits…. 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…”

The typical beer-drinking, tailgate-partying NFL crowd cheers its heroes as they try to move a small pigskin ball down a field while the spiritual, intellectually-inclined thousands on Wednesday will be celebrating heroes of another kind. They will be celebrating mild-mannered men who face the same stresses of life as the rest of us while relentlessly engaging in an often difficult daily intellectual pursuit – no matter how busy, tired, or stressed out they are. (Anyone familiar with Gemara can attest to the determination required to make it through any medium-size mesechta, let alone the entire Talmud.)

Nevertheless, it seems to me that some positive comparisons can be made with the regular inhabitants of sports stadiums in addition to the negative ones. And those comparisons are important – particularly in the Chanukah season, which celebrates the triumph of Jewish culture over Greek culture. The Greeks arrived in Eretz Yisrael with Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, and their culture dominated the land for 165 years until the Hasmonean revolt in 167 BCE. It may come as a surprise to some, but the Greek challenge to Torah values actually continued for hundreds of years after the brief glorious period of the Chanukah story.

Why? Because when kept in proper boundaries, much in Greek culture can actually enhance a Torah lifestyle. Alexander was welcomed with open arms by the Jewish community, and he initially brought much good to it. It was only over time – when Hellenistic values began to become primary and Jewish values secondary – that troubles began.

The truth of the matter is that a Daf Yomi finalist has more than a little in common with an elite NFL athlete. Whether it is garnering mental toughness to keep practicing a skill until it is mastered, or pushing oneself towards ever-increasing levels of strength and endurance, or strategizing and delaying short-term pleasure for long-term goals, or balancing the different demands on one’s time, attention, and energy – organized sports can provide excellent training in the development of a mature, responsible adult who is ready to take on the challenges of life. They teach one to strive for excellence and push beyond preconceived limits in the pursuit of a goal.

No major league ballplayer achieves success by talent alone. He must combine G-d-given gifts with countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears. Indeed, it is perhaps sports players’ toughness of mind and spirit that leads so many intellectuals to become avid sports fans. (I have a sneaky suspicion that more than a few Daf Yomi learners secretly enjoy watching an occasional NFL game and thus will be excited to sit in MetLife Stadium next week for more than one reason…)

So, yes, on the one hand, sports is merely mindless entertainment. I often recall a perfect encapsulation of professional sports by a famous sportscaster: “My job is to create the illusion that it matters.” Millions of people amazingly get crazed over which group of overpaid jocks won a ball game and discuss sports statistics for hours. So 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…”

At the same time, though, appreciation of the work ethic that it takes to excel in sports, as well as the grace and beauty of those who have perfected their abilities, can be a positive influence in one’s life as well as a source of inspiration.

If that is the case, the message of Rav Nechunia ben Hakanah’s words might lie primarily, not in the initial comparison (“we rise and they rise”), but in the contrasting purpose (“we rise for ______ while they rise for ______”). If our goal is only to excel in this-worldly activities, then admiration of sports athletes is ultimately for naught or, in the words of Kohelet, “hevel havalim.” But if our goal is to become better Jews and enter the World to Come with maximum accomplishments in this world, this admiration can be valuable.

Shortly after the Great Flood, Noach declared, “May Hashem enlarge and beautify Yaphet, and make it subservient within the tents of Shem” (Bereishis 9:27). As we sit next week in a great arena of Yaphet – MetLife Stadium – in order to appreciate the great achievements of Shem – the Siyum HaShas – may we look forward to the time when we are able to fully actualize Noach’s blessing and utilize the aesthetics of Yaphet in the tent of Torah in service of Hashem’s eternal plan.

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Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, former Rav at several congregations in the United States, lives in Israel and is an educator, writer, and licensed tour guide. He eagerly looks forward to showing our wonderful land to his brethren, especially those who still live in the Diaspora. He blogs at libibamizrach.blogspot.com and can be reached at lenopp@gmail.com.