Holding Onto All of Me

Reflections on seven and a half years of learning the Daf

A version of this article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine, December 25, 2019

It was close to 1 a.m., finishing an extremely long and grueling day. I was exhausted, having spent the day travelling to and conducting a funeral, ready and eager to collapse into bed, desperate for some sleep. And yet, there was something more to do, the day still incomplete, and so I could not retire for the night, even if it was really already the morning, until it was done. Before putting the day behind me, I sat down to learn.

Please understand that, baruch Hashem, learning Torah has been a core and central part of my entire adult life. In addition to the rigorous schedule of shiurim I am fortunate to teach, I have had a daily chavrusah for many years. Nevertheless, our schedules occasionally get away from us, and due to emergencies, the need to travel, or unexpected interruptions, there are days when our learning together simply doesn’t happen and, shamefully too often, neither does my personal Torah learning.

What makes a person who is desperate for sleep find the energy and willpower to stay up just a little bit longer to learn? What changed that made me sit down that night in a deep state of exhaustion?  

Seven-and-a-half years ago, we had the privilege to broadcast the Siyum HaShas at our shul, Boca Raton Synagogue. Throughout the inspirational evening and the electric speeches, my chavrusah and I kept looking at each other. We didn’t even need to say the words. Our glances communicated our new commitment: We were going to join the Daf Yomi movement and finish Shas together.   

In these seven-and-a -half years, we have honored that promise, learning early in the morning or late at night, in the bais midrash or on the phone, sometimes in my house, at times in his house, on the sidelines of a simcha, even sitting next to each other on a plane or in a parked car.

Of course, my story is far from unique. The benefits of learning the Daf are well known and have been amplified in many places. I can add my own affirmation in recognizing that without exaggeration, my family and my chavrusah’s family have been transformed, and our lives have been enriched. We are now members of a community and a movement, and we are literally on the same page with Klal Yisrael.  

And yet, to be honest, with all those benefits, there is an enormous drawback, a major challenge in covering an entire daf each and every day. For me, and I suspect many others, it is almost impossible to retain learning at that accelerated pace. Even for those who review, and certainly for those who only learn it once and move on, it is difficult to remember not just everything, but anything. Sometimes, one can forget not only which perek or daf, but even which masechta an idea or topic appeared in. 

Chazal tell us in Pirkei Avos (6:1) that among the rewards for one who occupies himself with Torah lishmah is, “Umachsharto lihiyos tzaddik v’chassid yashar v’ne’eman - Torah equips him to be righteous, pious, upright, and trustworthy.” Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim) explains that just as hechsher keilim purges treif, non-kosher, from a utensil, so too, Torah has the capacity to kasher, purge the treif, impure thoughts, ideas and images from a person’s neshamah

This insight gives me chizuk and inspiration when reflecting on the enormous ground we have covered yet I don’t feel I’m “holding” in. It goes without saying that we should do our best to review diligently and to absorb all of our learning. But the deeper power of Torah is that even when we don’t fully retain what we’ve learned, even when it feels like it goes in one ear and comes out the other, the Torah we are learning kashers what is between our ears while it passes through.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten, even so, they have made me.” At the end of a given year, we have eaten over a thousand meals and likely don’t remember a vast majority of them. Yet, if we skipped meals, certainly if we went a few days without eating, we would feel the impact and suffer from malnourishment, and it would compromise our health.  

Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu. Torah is the nourishment for our souls. It is our very life source. If we skip a spiritual meal or a dose of Daf, we compromise our spiritual health. We may not remember what we ingested each time we learned, but make no mistake: Our Torah learning makes us much more than the food we eat.

If I come home late at night and haven’t eaten all day, no matter how tired I am, I stop on the way to bed to grab something to eat. Even though my craving for sleep is greater than my appetite for food, it is inconceivable to go to sleep on an empty stomach. Being dedicated to the Daf movement has helped me bring the same attitude to learning. No matter how tired I may be, or how desperate for sleep, if I haven’t yet learned that day’s daf, I simply cannot go to sleep on an empty spiritual stomach.

With this siyum, many people are finishing Shas. We have learned 2,711 pages of Gemara, but how many can we remember? How many of the robust debates, sharp analysis and penetrating insights can we quote or reference? I myself have debated my worthiness in being considered as having made a Siyum HaShas when I am not truly holding in Shas. Is remembering Shas a prerequisite for celebrating a Siyum HaShas?  

The Gemara (Yevamos 121a) tells us that Rabban Gamliel relates that he was once at sea and from a distance saw a boat that had capsized and sank. “I was distraught over the loss of Rebbi Akiva, who was on board. When I disembarked onto dry land, Rebbi Akiva came before me to study. Shocked, I asked, ‘My son, who brought you up from the water?’ Rebbi Akiva responded, ‘Daf shel sefinah.A daf (wooden plank) from the boat floated to me. I grabbed onto it and I bent my head before each and every wave that came toward me until I reached the shore.’”

As is well known, when first proposing the Daf Yomi movement, Rav Meir Shapiro quoted this story and said that when we feel life has thrown us overboard, when we sense that we are drowning, we, too, can grab onto our daf, Daf Yomi, to find balance and to feel safe.

Indeed, the greatness of Daf Yomi is in its consistency and kashering capacity. The daily study of Torah purifies us, cleanses us, inspires us, and enriches us. But we don’t only go through Shas. As importantly, even when we can’t remember everything that we learned, we are transformed by the fact that Shas has gone through us.

I saw and felt the power of grabbing onto the Daf firsthand recently when I, along with our whole community in South Florida, went through the horrific loss of an extraordinary friend. Despite a grueling schedule as a prominent physician, serving as a leader for several communal organizations including our shul and a local yeshiva, my yedid nefesh Brian Galbut z”l always set aside time for Torah study each and every day. Space does not permit a full accounting of how special and extraordinary Brian was, but it was no secret to anyone who knew him that among his great passions and learning accomplishments was finishing the Daf Yomi cycle several times.

A little over two years ago, when as a young man Brian was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, the Daf took on even greater significance to him and he grabbed onto it. The week after his first brain surgery, Brian was not recuperating in his bed or convalescing on the couch. Instead, he was sitting in the local kollel. He felt that learning Torah, reviewing the Daf over and over again, was a critical part of his healing process. When I planned a visit, he said, “Why don’t you come meet me at the kollel? We can do the Daf.” And that is exactly what we did on more than one occasion. In the weeks after his diagnosis, he spent time calling friends and family from around the world, asking if they could take up learning Daf Yomi in his merit. Many did, and many are still doing it thanks to those phone calls.

As Brian’s horrific illness progressed, his once brilliant mind struggled to even gain a basic understanding of the Gemara. Instead of getting frustrated, he grabbed onto the Daf tighter and reviewed it even more times each day. In the last few days of his life, Brian was no longer conscious, but his family understood that as important as any medicine dripping into his veins was the sound of that day’s Daf reverberating into his ears. Right on his pillow, literally next to his head, the Daf Yomi shiur was playing on repeat. At that point, Brian was no longer able to go through the Daf. But make no mistake: Even then the Daf continued to go through him.  

In the end, I am enormously proud to be part of this Siyum. While I cannot confidently tell you that I am holding in all of Shas, I can tell you with certainty that Shas is holding onto all of me. And that is why, as we begin the next cycle, I have no intention of putting it down.