Maybe you know the
old Yiddish joke? Back in pre-war Minsk, Shmerel and Berel are having a
conversation. During a pause, Shmerel suddenly remembers a bit of bad news he
has to relate.
“Did you hear about
Yankel the barber in Pinsk?”
“No,” Berel says
haltingly, having picked up an ominous signal from the way the question had
“He’s not here
anymore,” Shmerel says, using a Yiddish euphemism for someone recently
“Oy!” exclaims Berel,
“You mean Yankel, with the huge round nose?”
Shmerel nods a sad
“Yankel who has only
one eye?” Again, a confirmation.
“Yankel with that
big scar across his cheek and the pimples?!” Another sad nod.
“Ay, yai, yai,” moans Berel. “Azah sheineh Yid!” (“What a beautiful
The story came back to me at the Siyum HaShas. Let me
When people, as so many did, came over to me in various
places to congratulate me, a veteran Agudath Israel staff member for a quarter of
a century, for the amazing event, I responded, entirely honestly, that my main
role was standing out of the way of the many unbelievably dedicated and
talented people who did the real work, like the Agudah’s executive staff, the
young women who spent days and late nights taking orders and processing
tickets, the devoted community askanim
and technical facilitators.
(Actually, I do take credit for offering the idea, a year or
so before the Siyum, of including
chemical hand warmers in the swag bags. You’re welcome.)
I wasn’t even really at the Siyum, at least not as part of the crowd. My perch was in the press
box, high above the gathering, a floor dedicated to members of the media, with
whom I was charged to interact.
I answered many questions but mostly just steered
representatives of the Fourth Estate to members of the tzibbur whom they could interview about Daf Yomi and the Siyum.
One of my few on-camera moments, as it happened, was
responding to a German television crew’s question, born of recent events, about
what the Siyum means in the context
of all the recent anti-Semitic violence. I straightforwardly pointed out that
Jews are long accustomed to hatred and adversaries, and are long trained in perseverance.
I wonder how that played in Munich.
It was, though, when I watched several reporters intone into
their microphones about how so many Jews “read a page of Talmud” daily that
Shmerel and Berel appeared before my mind’s eye.
Because the joke about them, of course, is a pointed one. And
its point is that we Jews see things differently from other people. To us,
beauty is truly anything but skin deep.
And so, when we look at a true Daf Yomi talmid, we don’t
see someone “reading a page” of a text. We see someone who, for 2711 days
straight, has engaged not only with very complex material, but with holiness
Where a reporter saw “reading,” we saw reverence.
Many journalists wanted to tie their stories about the Siyum into a narrative about the aforementioned
violence against Jews we’ve endured of late. They saw “a flare up of anti-Semitism.”
Jewish eyes, though, saw the latest manifestation of “Esav sonei l’Yaakov,” the wages of galus and a message that we need to
improve our avodas Hashem.
During a particularly poignant part of the Siyum program,
tribute was paid to a man named Mendy Rosenberg, who, despite being severely
limited by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), successfully undertook to
complete a full Daf Yomi cycle
despite a prognosis that didn’t allow him anywhere near the time needed, and,
despite eventually having to communicate with his chavrusa through eye movements alone. Reporters saw a broken man
doing the best he could. Jewish eyes saw an amazing hero, a gibor chayil and powerful role model for
And when a group of Holocaust survivors were introduced to
the approximately 90,000 people at MetLife Stadium and to countless others in
myriad venues linked to the proceedings, the media saw the last human vestiges
of a world that once was. Jewish eyes, though, saw superhuman connections to
our mesorah, which they carried out with
them to us from the furnace of Churban
When the camera was aimed at the Masmidei HaSiyum youngsters,
who had participated in the Siyum by undertaking limudim of Gemara, Mishnayos or Chumash, the reporters saw lovable little boys. We saw nothing less
than the Jewish future, a, be”H,
And, finally, when the observers from the outside saw, and
dutifully reported on, the “record crowd” in the stadium – not only were the
stands fairly full, but the playing field held many more people, including the Rabbanim
on the dais, Daf Yomi Maggidei Shiur and many others – Jewish eyes saw, well, Klal Yisrael.
No, not all of it, but enough of it to perceive something
else invisible to many observers: the vibrancy, dedication and passion of the
collective Jewish neshamah.
Berel would understand.
© 2020 Hamodia