Monday, August 13, 2012

My Siyum HaShas Speech

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you very much for being here today, smack in middle of your busy summer day. I know that I’ve interrupted your schedules and I therefore I very much appreciate that you made efforts to be here. Naomi went to great pains to find a date and time that would be agreeable to everyone, knowing that no matter what she settled on, it would be inconvenient for a lot of people. So in the first place, I’m grateful that you made it here today, and more importantly, I’m extremely grateful to Naomi for putting this affair together.
I had a Rebbe. His name was Rav Shlomo Eisenblatt, zatzal. He authorized his talmidim – and it was his common practice – to speak the name of God when one is feeling extremely grateful. He held of this in matters both spiritual and secular. Therefore, b’reshus my rebbe Reb Shlomo: Hodu lashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo! Tov lehodos lashem ulezamer lesimcha elyon! We have finished Shas! Boruch HaShem boruch HaShem!  We have finished Shas!
Five years ago, my wife and I – and our little Naavaleh – were zocheh to go to Eretz Yisroel. While we were there, we had a tour guide by the name of Reb Chayim who showed us around Tsfat. In Tsfat is the kever of Rav Yehuda bar Iloy. At the kever of Rav Yehdua bar Iloy there is a collection of benches and tables. There is a minhag to circle the kever while reciting tehillim in a certain way and when done, to approach the kever, ask for things in a very specific manner, and when the request is fulfilled, to return to the kever, and have a seudas mitzvah at the benches and tables.
I asked for three specific things:
One, I asked for a refuah for my old friend Dovid Yifrach ben Tuvia Yamnik, of blessed memory. Unfortunately, the immediate response was no.
Two, I asked that I should publish a book. That’s not specific enough though, because I knew I would eventually get that done. That was under my control, and indeed, I’ve written a few books (available today for $19.95!). What was not under my control was how successful I’d be. So my specific request was to make a living as a writer. So God’s answer to that has so far been: maybe.
Finally, I had just started learning Shas at the time of my visit, and I already had an inkling that I would finish it. Because when Martin Bodek starts something, he sees it through to the end.
L’mah dovor domeh? To borrow a phrase from the gemorah? I have a perfect analogy, which is most apropos since the Olympics are occurring as we speak, and the marathon was run just this morning. There was a marathon runner from Tanzania in the 1968 games by the name of John Stephen Akhwari. He was badly hurt during the race, dislocating his knee and bruising his shoulder. He limped into the stadium one hour and fifteen minutes after the winner. He was asked afterwards why he bothered finishing when he was obviously in so much pain. He said, “My country did not send me 10,000 miles just to start the race; they sent me to finish the race.”
I think my in-laws realized this quality of mine in short order. Originally, we had a program where I would finish one of the Schottenstein gemorahs, visit our local seforim store, and use my father-in-law’s credit card – on file – to purchase the next one. Finally he caved and bought the whole darn thing. Either there was a great deal or he saw how committed I was. I prefer to think it was the latter.
So my third request was the boldest of all. I asked that I be zoche to finish Shas, but I needed to be more specific, so I asked that I would do it while my grandfather was still alive. He was 86 at the time, and he would be 93 when I finish.
Boruch HaShem, my grandfather is alive, although he’s not very well. But he has been rejuvenated and revived, in large part due to my sister Yenti’s efforts and my brother-in-law Nuchem Yitzchok and their children.
So, God’s answers to me have been: no, maybe, yes. Therefore, I’YH, my family will be going to Israel and we’ll make a siyum there. I don’t know when this will be, and my wife and I missed out on the El-Al pricing snafu, but I’m hoping that when we do, we can be joined once again by our tour guide.
So today, I’d like to answer some burning questions you might have for me. I’m not talking about easily answerable questions, like: when do you have time for all this stuff? That’s easy. We’ve already established that I don’t sleep.  And I can’t discuss in public what my favorite learning was. You’d need an internet filter for the full answer. I’m talking about questions whose answers need to be fleshed out a bit more, and that can be talked about at length in a public forum.
I have four questions I’d like to answer for you today: 1) What does it take to finish daf yomi? 2) How long does it take to finish daf yomi? 3) Why does it mean so much to me?, and 4) To whom have I dedicated the learning?
So now that you asked me the feer kashes, I’ll do you a toivah and answer you a teretz.
Question # 1: What does it take to finish daf yomi? Well I’ve crunched the numbers and I think I’ve determined the exact formula: 65% OCD and 35% enablers.
                I’ve established, by word and by practice, that I finish what I start, that I don’t start what I won’t finish, that I have a certain stick-to-it-iveness.
Also, I have made good decisions in life, and have avoided bad ones. I’ve chosen a good and honest living, I’ve chosen a good town to live in, I’ve chosen a great shul, I found myself a good woman, I chose some really great inlaws. On the other side of the coin, I’ve avoided catastrophe in my life and used my energies towards good things. In my youth I was surrounded by friends who had tracks on their arms, who were drunk half the time, taking hits from soda canisters in the camp canteen. But I never partook. I wanted no part of it. I was properly channeled. Instead of drugs, I got into fitness. Instead of alcohol, I got into Scrabble. Instead of wasting time In various harmful ways, I took up daf yomi.
This is all part and parcel of the same mode of thinking that I’ve used my whole life. I see things through, I make good decisions, I avoid bad ones.  I’d like to think I’m an example of the correct approach to internet filtering. We have to make our children into filters, so that they can discern for themselves. This is the quality that my parents have given me.
This is why I can’t give myself the entire credit for my gestalt. A lot of this goes to my enabling quartet of parents, each of whom focused on a particular part of my personality to channel me in the proper direction. How did they do it? Well, my mom focused on my physical wellbeing. My father focused on my mental and emotional wellbeing, my aba made sure I enjoyed the fun part of life. We went on lots of fun road trips together. And my mum was always after me about my academic success and was very adamant that I marry a Stern girl.
As you can see, boruch Hashem, I remain physically fit, mentally sound, fun-loving, serious about my career, and I found my perfect Stern girl. To my parents, I say thank you for all this – I hope you see that your efforts have been rewarded – and today, I thank you in particular for leading me down the path to the occasion we’re sharing today.
I’d also like to point out the things which you all took responsibility for were successfully handed over to Naomi, and she has handled the facets that you handled quite capably. She gets to my heart through my stomach, she makes sure I remain responsible to our family as far as making a living, she nurtures my intellect, and we make sure to spend Date Nights together. So thank you, Naomi, for scoring a touchdown after the handoff.
So that’s what it takes. That’s how I’ve been able to stick to something for this long.
So how long does it take?
Well that seems to be a simple question, and it has a known answer: Talmud bavli is 2,711 pages. It takes 7 years and 5 months to finish.
But I wanted to show you in metaphor.
(beckon over Naava)
This is my daughter Naava. She is as old as this daf yomi endeavor. I completed my first masechte - maseches Brachos - at her simchat bat, and here we are all this time later. She was a little baby then, and she’s a pretty lady now. She is the physical manifestation of the spiritual undertaking. This is how long it takes to nurture the learning.
So I give myself a brocha that I should I’YH finish Shas again when she’s twice this age. And coincidentally, around that time, my Freddy will be celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. So Freddy, I should be zoche to finish Shas again at your Bar Mitzvah in your honor.
Der driteh kasha is…
What does this mean to me? Why does it matter to me? I have two reasons.
One: I’ve done a few cute things in my life of some note. I’ve written a few books (available today for $14.95!), I’ve run a few marathons, I’m the 37th best Scrabble player in Jersey. Now these are all very cute, nice, good, fun, but mostly trivial. Finishing Shas is something I take with me. It follows me after 120 to wherever I’m going, and it’s the legacy that will remain with my children.
I was particularly struck by what appears on the tombstone of my wife’s paternal grandfather’s tombstone. There it is: He finished Shas twice. It doesn’t mention all the interesting things he did with his life. The degrees he earned, the music boxes that he sold for a living, the responsible way he cared for his family. No, he finished Shas twice.
That’s the way I’d like it to be for me. My matzeivah will say I was a good husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, I’YH. And there’ll be a play on words for my third name, but I want it to say how many times I finished Shas. Because that will speak for me, in this life and the next, more than anything else I’ve done with my life.
Two: My grandfather, Benzion ben Chantze, is no longer able to learn daily. He has finished Shas 14 times, and I feel it would be a shame if his “horeving” yomim v’lailah was not continued by any of his descendants. I am proud and feel responsible to pick up that mantle and continue his legacy. I want to be the vehicle through which he earns the brocha of ”Sheloy tamish hatorah m’pi I’m’pi zari v’zera zari, ad oylum.” I feel that if I, his “zera zari” continues along this path, I will be the vessel through which he becomes blessed in this way, having earned it over the course of his life. And in turn, I hope to be zocheh to the same. I hope to deserve it.
Finally, we come to the last question, for whom did I learn the gemorah? I think the answer is obvious, if you’ve been paying attention. It’s for my maternal grandfather, Benzion ben Chantze, who is not well at the moment, but present, B’H. I completed Shas at his bedside the day before the official Siyum Hashas. You can imagine how emotional an experience it was for me.
                To put this into context so that you understand why it is that I owe him, allow me to give you a brief biography and a single story, and we’ll then complete Shas together.
                Zaidy had one older sister and one older brother. After they were born, my great grandmother endured six miscarriages. She became pregnant again, and my great grandfather, Reb Aharon, went to the Vizhnitze Rebbe for advice, and the Vizhnitze Rebbe told him to name his future son Benzion. He did so, and my grandfather got a very interesting start to his life.
                In his younger years he was not quite the masmid he would eventually become. He was a man about town. His only surviving cousin, Shula, referred to him as a lady’s man. One day, before heading out to gallivant about, he opened the door to his parents room to say that he’s leaving, and his mother was sitting there crying. He asked what she was crying about. She said, “You, I’m crying about you. You’re wasting your life running around when you could be spending your time so much more wisely.” He did teshuva on the spot, went to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s beis medrash, and became his personal chavrusah.
                Then the war came.
                Now, I’ve kind of categorized the different ways in which that generation survived the war.
1)      Concentration camp.
2)      On the run.
3)      In hiding. This includes those who hid underground for half a decade or more.
4)      Shipped out to a Jewish family in some unabused country. This includes the Kindertransport.
5)      Taken in by one of the chasidei amos ha’olam. Oskar Schindler is in this category.
6)      Soldier for the allies, or a partisan.
7)      Somehow found an unaffected place on earth.
What’s interesting about all of the above, is that in my family tree, nearly all of these are covered. Both my grandmothers survived Auschwitz. My wife’s paternal grandmother was on the run the whole time with her family. My wife’s paternal grandfather was sent out on the Kindertransport. My mum’s father was in a Polish labor camp with his brothers, who escaped and went into hiding. And my mother-in-law’s parent were in America, and her father was an American soldier. As was my Aba’s father, of whom I am exceptionally proud. Private First Class Morris Wicentowsky, 101st Combat Engineering Division. Purple Heart Awardee for wounds sustained in defense of his country and of his people.
But my grandfather’s experience does not fall under any of these categories. He falls into an 8th category, lemana min hateva.
There were 18 immediate family members, living close together in Romania, in a town called Transylvania. The Nazis came and tore everything asunder. 16 of the 18 would not survive the war. It would be only him and his brother, who he would not see until the war was over. Everyone else was sent to their death. My grandfather was granted life by the nazis, along with several of his friends, and was used as a foxhole digger on the front lines. He described to me how he watched his friends fall from ally bullets while he was forced to keep digging.
One day in the middle of the night, he escaped, and he trekked through the woods for months, subsisting on mushrooms, stream water, garbage, and whatever he could find inside of whatever dogs and bears left behind.
Then the Soviets captured him, and they enslaved him too. He fetched water for the red army and chopped wood for them in sub-freezing conditions. In return, he got meager rations.
As many of you may know, the soviets were not a well supplied army. They ran out of guns, bullets and food, and believe it or not, after a while, they had to resort to cannibalism to survive.
But my grandfather never partook.
The cook that traveled with the army had to resort to preparing “mentschenfleish,” as my grandfather called it.
My grandfather refused, no matter the hunger he was experiencing. One day the cook offered some of what he made to my grandfather. My grandfather said no. The cook tattled on him and the soviets beat the stuffing out of my grandfather, declaring him to be useless if he didn’t have the energy to bring them their supplies, but he wouldn’t give in and he never did. He abstained.
My grandfather illustrated for me how severe the hunger was. He’s told me this story a few times, and every time he tells it, I chap a pachad.
He said that once, in middle of the winter night, he was laying against a person for warmth, when a person with a knife crawled up to the person on whom my grandfather was laying and proceeded to cut into his shoulder. The person being cut into woke up, turned his hands up, and said, “Brother, can’t you see that I’m still alive?”
That’s how hungry they all were, and my grandfather was hungriest of them all, because he did not partake of what the rest of the marching army and their slaves were partaking in.
The winter ended, and many had died along the way as they traveled, but my grandfather was still alive. They arrived at a Soviet training camp and declared that the red army was running out of men. Any “slave” who was still fit enough for combat would go through basic training and join the allies against the axis.
My grandfather took up basic training, and the Americans arrived. He banded together with nine of his friends and began making their way back home to Romania.
He had one more night of travel left to go, and of course, the traveling group was hungry as usual. They found a batch of mushrooms and ate them before heading off to sleep and rest up for the final day’s travel home.
Guess what? My grandfather did not partake. Something smelled off.
The next morning, he was the only person who woke up. He went the rest of the way himself. He made it home and found that only a single corner of his house remained standing. In that corner it could plainly be seen that his father’s Shas was used as toilet paper, and the corner was used as a bathroom.
He walked out to the middle of the street, sat down and cried.
Somebody came over to him and said, “Benzion? Benzion Malik?”
He looked up, stunned to be face to face with someone he knew from before the war, and said, “Yes!”
The man said, “Your brother is just down the street. He just arrived.”
My grandfather ran out to meet him and grabbed his brother Laizer and hugged him and cried with him and he swears to me that he didn’t let go of him for at least an hour before they commenced with picking up the pieces of their lives.
They dug up the jewels that were buried in their backyard, they buried the Shas that was defiled, they arranged shelter for themselves, they attended a ball for single men and women, where my grandfather met my grandmother and were married in Romania.
One day in 1947, over the loudspeakers in town, it was announced that ships had arrived at the port, that they were there for anybody to board and to be brought to the Holy Land to build up the Medina. My grandparents got on board, and they settled in Acco. And there they were, present and accounted for when Ben Gurion spoke his immortal words.
We now fast-forward through the rest of his life.
My grandparents had 3 children, whom they brought to the United States to resettle. Legend has it that my mother flew to an Elvis concert here in the states, and refused to go back, forcing her family to move to the United States with her. The story might be apocryphal, but in any case, they made it here.
My grandfather was a cook all of his life, he learned all of his life. He was a classic learner/earner.
My grandmother passed away in 2004. They were married for 58 years. My grandparents had 19 grandchildren, 80+ great-grandchildren and 2 great-great children.  None of my grandfather’s 100+ descendants have passed before their time, and I think I know why.
Because the summary of his life is that he made good choices, he avoided bad ones, he chose a good and honest living, a good town to live in, a great shul, a good woman,  he avoided catastrophe all his life and used his energies towards good things. He was surrounded by depravity and dangerous choices, but he never partook. He wanted no part of it. He properly channeled himself. Sound familiar yet?
My grandfather embodied the posuk in Devorim:
הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ
(translate posuk)
My grandfather chose life, and his children and his grandchildren have lived.
So if you ask me why it is that I dedicated to learning for my grandfather, I think the answer is obvious.
1)      I am alive today because of his wise decisions, and his will to live. He lives with a fire. Even today, laid up in a hospital bed, he is infuriated with his physical frailty and is angry when his legs wobble when he tries to walk. He’s a fighter. So I owe him.
2)      Because it wasn’t just the attention and care my parents gave me that helped me with the discernment that I’ve been blessed with. The zechusim of my grandfather, who was given the brocha I just mentioned, flows through me. He’s given me the spiritual protection in addition to the physical protections my parents have given me. Therefore, I owe him for that as well.
3)      Because I’m jealous of him. Because he chose life and his children and grandchildren have been given life, so do I want to be zoche to merit the same. I choose life, I want my children and grandchildren to live. I want those blessings too.
Finally, if you ask me why I chose to honor him in this specific way, by learning Shas, it’s not just because I want to follow in his footsteps, or that I feel a responsibility to pick up where he leaves off, or that I have a mild form of OCD and I have no choice. It’s because, I have to imagine, that he was transformed when he saw his father’s Shas desecrated and defiled in his home. Just like he went to the Beis Medrash when he saw his mother crying, and took up learning the rest of his life, so too he must have decided to create a tikun for his gemorah when he saw it so horribly torn apart and defaced. He finished Shas more times than there have been cycles of Shas! That’s why. He saw defilement and raised it to kedusha. I see the kedusha that I have inherited and I feel responsible to continue it, to continue the tikun, the repair.
You all know that I love books (available for $12.95!), cherish them and write them, and you know if you’ve read them that in the introduction, I caution readers to treat my books with respect. I ask my children to treat books with respect. How much more respect, then, must I have for seforim? And for Shas itself, you can’t possibly imagine.
This is why I have learned Shas, and this is why I dedicate it to my grandfather, Benzion ben Chantze. May he be well, may he be blessed, and may I, and we, all be blessed the same way he has. We can start my making good choices, and avoiding bad ones. If you do, you could end up with days like this, surrounded by the people you love more than anything in the world.
Before we finish, I would like to make three quick points.
1)      There is a young man in this neighborhood, whose name I won’t mention so I don’t embarrass the family members that are present here, who finished TaNaCH in time for his Bar Mitzvah. I’ve been trying to work my way through it myself, and being present at the siyum motivated me to move up the timetable. To keep me to my word, I’m putting it out in public that it’s my goal to make a siyum on TaNaCh in time for my 3rd Bar Mitzvah. Naturally, it would please me no end if everyone here could be there as well. I’ll let you know how I’m progressing.
2)      I’d like to acknowledge my daf yomi brothers, led by the inimitable talmid chachum, Iddo Wernick. He inspired me a few weeks ago when I mentioned that doing Daf Yomi and Nach Yomi is rather difficult and it might keep me from making my goal. He said that he finishes TaNaCh every year! And he’s never made a siyum! Why don’t you make a siyum? Don’t you know Reb Moshe’s psak on that? While discussing, he mentioned that “it’s important to always be in it.” I love that quote, because that’s what it’s all about. To be immersed, and this reflects what I’ve been talking about, to be immersed in goodness and avoiding badness. Mr. David Shapiro is inspiring as well. I sat next to him at the Siyum Hashas, knowing that he too finished the learning. You should be gebentched! David and his wife Ellen are making aliyah in mamesh a few days. Israel’s gain is our loss. We’ll miss you and we wish you well.
3)      When I spoke at our son Ranan’s bris, I mentioned that the cryptic pesukim of Aishes Chayil were slowly, over the course of my marriage, manifesting themselves with meaning. The same thing has happened with some of the phrasing in the hadran. Specifically, the last yehi ratzon. For example, it should be His will that I’m lilmod ulalemed, and that has come to bear. But also what’s come to bear is the hope that it would stand watch over me, b’shochvecha tishmor alaycha. How? Because very often, my gemorah is on my nightstand and it stands sentinel over me. Also, behishalelcha tancha osach, when you walk, it should chat with you. It does, as I go through my day, I constantly am reminding myself that the day’s daf needs to be done, and when I can get to do it. And of course, if all those things have come true, then I hope the ultimate will come true, shelo tumish hatorah m’pi, Imepi zari v’zera zari ad olam!
Boruch shehecheyanu v’kiyemunu v’higdilanu l’zman hazeh! Let us finish Shas!
(Complete Shas, hadran, kadish, mazel tov!)


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