My friend, David Lewis, shared a teaching with me years ago, in the name of the great near-Yid, Bruce Springsteen:
A time comes when you need to stop waiting for the man you want to become and start being the man you want to be.
I have probably repeated those words to myself a thousand times. Rav Bruce is talking about positive transformation; the kind that takes daily, if not hourly, work. My version of that saying is “be da mensch,” and if you ever see those words on a CA license plate, please give a friendly honk, because you’re looking at the Accidental Talmudist.
I hesitated for years to get a personalized plate. There’s value in anonymity - you make a clean getaway - but in the end, I wanted to share a message that’s meant so much to me. And I’m happy to report that the plate has sparked enough knowing chuckles among passersby to justify the extra 30 bucks a year.
I believe it was the same impulse that led to this blog. I stumbled into Talmud thanks to a little miracle (if you’re just joining us, click here for the story); and as the seven-and-a-half year cycle of Daf Yomi approaches completion (the Siyum happens this August), I want to get the word out to folks like me, who may have heard of the Talmud, but never imagined they’d actually read it.
You can read it. And it will change your life. It has certainly changed mine.
The neat thing is, you already know some Talmud, and we’re all about to read that bit next week in the Passover Haggadah. Several key passages are taken directly from the Mishnah, i.e. the first written version of the Oral Law, compiled around 200 CE. The Oral Traditions of the Mishnah were substantially expanded by those of the Gemara around 500 CE and together these Rabbinic discussions, legends, arguments, and expositions comprise the Talmud.
Now, the problem with the Haggadah is that the taste of Talmud it offers the average, non-Yeshiva-educated Jew, or friend of the Jews, is not always exciting. Here comes the Accidental Talmudist, however, to show you how exciting it can be.
The trick to understanding the Seder is that it’s meant to be a Talmudic discussion, and the Haggadah is in fact a study guide for a vibrant Q&A.
And even two Torah scholars who are proficient in the laws of Passover must ask one another. (Pesachim 116a, Daf Yomi Day 438)
The famous Four Questions (Why is this night different from all other nights, etc.) have become a cute recitation we teach our kids to perform at the Seder. The Talmud, however, actually says:
...here the son asks his father. And if the son lacks understanding, his father teaches him to ask. (Ibid.)
The Four Questions are
of questions. The commandment is to have a Q&A about Israel’s journey from “disgrace to glory”, not to ask these particular questions. Of course, what has happened is that the dry recitation has replaced dynamic discussion in most Jewish homes - which is exactly why G-D commanded that the Oral Law remain oral. The Mishnah was written down 1500 years later because the Sages feared they’d all be murdered by Rome, and our precious tradition would be lost. Perhaps they should not have worried - Rome vanished, like every other “power” that persecuted our little tribe over the last 3500 years - but Sages’ fear was understandable.
Still, we must understand that the written form of the Oral Law was never meant to replace the oral tradition. We learn from our elders, our teachers and each other by asking questions and searching for answers
. A good discussion is one in which all parties learn something none knew before.
The Haggadah, just like the rest of the Talmud, is a photograph of a fountain (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz). It models a good, Torah-based discussion, so we can start our own. Once we do, the waters of Torah will flow down from G-D, through our ancestors, to us. But we must open our mouths to drink from that fountain.
So, how do you get that conversation going at Seder, and how will that help you be da mensch you’ve always wanted to be? Creative solutions abound, but here are a few we’ve used at our Seder table:
1. Think of a negative behavior you’d like to shed. In the past you may have made a New Year’s resolution to outgrow a habit, and failed. Why? Because a mere intention, coupled with a night of drinking champagne is guaranteed to fail. Instead, start thinking about that habit a few weeks before the festival on which you want to draw a line in the sand. Like right now. Then, when you show up at Passover, you write down your habit - no need to share with the others if you’d rather be private about it - and burn the paper before the Seder starts. That habit is your Pharaoh; it has enslaved you for years, and you’re about to be redeemed. This night will be your personal Exodus.
2. As you read the Haggadah, every time you hear “Pharaoh,” think of the habit which enslaves you. Have you been able to free yourself by your own efforts? No. How will you get free in the future? With G-D’s help. G-D wants you to be a better human being - the Holy One wants you to be a mensch. That’s why you were invented. To repair yourself, and repair this broken world, and do what only the humans can do. Will it be easy? Absolutely not.
The Israelites left Egypt on the wings of eagles, with miracles, signs and wonders. A few weeks later, they were whining about water and meat, and worshipping a golden calf. Good grief! Can you blame G-D for going “Old Testament” on them? But the Holy One still loves those wayward children, and bestows upon them the greatest gift ever given to mankind - the Torah, both Written and Oral.
So, even though you will slip and slide on the path to overcoming your bad habit, you will eventually reach the promised land if you adopt a daily practice that reminds you of
G-D’s faith in you
. You can start with one minute - one minute a day of asking G-D how you can do better. Eventually, you might join a community of G-D oriented people and grow with them, but in the beginning you can even do it alone.
If his son is not intelligent enough to ask, his wife asks him, and if there is no wife, he asks himself. (Ibid.)
You’ve got to get used to asking questions, even of yourself. Schedule one minute a day to ask yourself how it’s going in your project to escape from your Pharaoh. By merely asking, you will receive answers on how to do better, and having become aware of the areas for improvement, you will in fact do better. After a while, you’ll even find it’s fun, and profound, and you may want to set aside a little more time every day for questions and answers.
And then, just maybe, you’ll want to give Daf Yomi a try.
May you have an exciting, meaningful Passover, that moves you one step closer to being da mensch you’ve always wanted to be. Chag sameach!
(If you’d like to attend a Seder, but don’t have one, just google “find a seder” and you will easily find a seat among people who will thank you for coming. Happy Passover!)
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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.