I have been struggling to write a post since I came down from the Mt. Sinai-like high of the Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium, when we completed the seven and a half year cycle of reading the Talmud (click here for my Jewish Journal cover story about that experience).
I have kept up with the page-a-day schedule of the new Daf Yomi cycle, but my writer’s block arose from the fear of actually committing to another seven and a half years of Talmud study.
During the first cycle, my learning curve was nearly vertical. In most areas, my newfound knowledge remains superficial to be sure, yet there is no substitute for that all-encompassing view which an ant obtains the first time it climbs a tree and sees the entire world in which it lives. The experience transformed me in a fundamental way, for which I thank G-d. Deepening and reinforcing that experience would thus seem like the obvious next step.
Three reasons immediately presented themselves, however, for moving on from the Talmud. Number one, I did it! After running the NYC Marathon years ago I felt like I’d run two marathons – my first and last. Check! And now that I, a non-Yeshiva boy, have merited to read the whole Talmud, dayenu!
Number two, it is hard to keep this going for anyone, but especially someone who does not attend synagogue every morning, and who is not a full-time Torah scholar. I’m a director, and I’ve just made an independent film in a unique and unprecedented manner (see Saving Lincoln). My family’s livelihood depends on connecting this film with its audience, a huge undertaking in itself. I am stressed and obsessed. Extra time, I do not have.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Talmud marathon often felt like it was cutting into my time with G-d. Yes, I was transformed, and I know that Torah study is the highest form of service, but my prayer practice used to feel more spiritual because I had more time. The Talmud journey surely augmented my prayer, but I was looking forward to extending my prayer-time because it grounds me, and orients my life. And yet, I couldn’t bear to stop reading the Talmud.
Today, I realized why. I went to my Talmud class this morning and two profound things happened. It is no coincidence they happened on the same day. The first arose from the Talmud itself:
Rava said: It is obvious to me that if a poor person lacks the funds to purchase both the oil for kindling a Sabbath light for his house and the oil for a Chanukah light…the light for his house is preferable, on account of the peace it brings to his home, [for otherwise his family would be sitting and eating in the dark.] It is also obvious that if he cannot afford to purchase both the oil for the Sabbath light… and the wine for sanctification [Kiddush] of the Sabbath day… the light for his house is preferable, on account of the peace it brings to his house. (Shabbat 23b, translation mostly by Rabbi Steinsaltz)
In fact, neither statement is obvious and the great teacher Rava knew it. The rationale for choosing the Sabbath light over the Chanukah light ought to arise from the well-established Talmudic principle that frequent mitzvahs take precedence over infrequent mitzvahs (Zevachim 89a). It is counter-intuitive for most, but Shabbat is a more important holiday than Rosh Hashanah precisely because it happens every week rather than once a year.
The second statement implies that candle lighting, a Rabbinic decree, overrides Kiddush, a Biblical decree. Commentators have argued that Rava’s choice is justified by the fact that Kiddush could be made over bread, or simply included in the Maariv prayer of Friday night, but clearly the superior way to make Kiddush is with wine. So when the chips are really down, and the impoverished man is most anxious to beseech G-d, it would seem that Kiddush should prevail. Why does Rava tell him to choose the Sabbath light instead? Because peace in the home is paramount.
My teacher Rabbi Blau adds, if for the sake of peace in the home we sacrifice such a beloved mitzvah as kindling the Chanukah light, and what’s more, we sacrifice even the more revered and frequent mitzvah of making Kiddush over wine, then how much more must we sacrifice the ego – an opportunity which arises every day – for the sake of the peace in the house!
That is Talmud in practice. Talmud that brings G-d's love into my home. Talmud that blesses my family. Talmud I need.
And then we prayed Shacharit. Rather than try to keep up with the morning service around me, I sank into the opening blessings. Blessings are the first thing we read about in the Talmud, occupying the opening two months of the Daf Yomi cycle. Reading those pages again was completely different. I absorbed much more because the Talmud’s language, style, conceptual approach and connection-making were no longer a mystery. I’m still an amateur, of course, but I’m no longer a beginner.
Praying the morning blessings today, a portal opened. We’re supposed to say hundred blessings a day. It sounds like an onerous chore, but when the portal opened I realized each blessing is an opportunity to experience G-d’s Presence, and it only takes a few more seconds than rushing through the utterance.
More about that in my next post.
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Salvador Litvak wrote & directed the Passover comedy and cult hit, When Do We Eat? His upcoming film, Saving Lincoln, explores Abraham Lincoln's fiery trial as Commander-in-Chief through the eyes of his closest friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.
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