Learning from the Siyum Hashas: Meaningful Lives, Wasted Lives

I have not spoken to all of the well over 90,000 people who were at MetLife Stadium and Barclays Center. But I have heard enough to know that every person has their own story. Some were moved by the speeches, some by the Mincha and Maariv, some by the kabbolas ohl Malchus Shomayim. Some contributed significantly to the grand kiddush Hashem, some made what will hopefully be life changes for the better in their learning and middos.

Today, I would like to focus on some of the most poignant and inspirational moments, the stories of courageous young souls who triumphed over illness and horrendous disabilities to learn Daf Yomi and other parts of the Torah.

Chazal (Yoma 32) tell us of various Tannaim who are mechayeiv – obligate – the rest of us because their challenges were so much greater than ours, yet they persevered beyond any reasonable expectation. Despite all, they became some of the greatest Jewish leaders whose teachings have achieved immortality.

One of these who enhanced the already magnificent Siyum is Reb Mendy Rosenberg, whom I have had the honor to meet and admire. He suffers from an advanced stage of ALS, a horrific degenerative disease, which has robbed him of the ability to eat, speak or move. Yet, he learns Torah constantly and was one of the most heroic mesayemim at the recent Siyum. His story was eloquently recounted by C.B. Weinfeld in the HaSiyum Magazine distributed at the Siyum Hashas.

I mention this now because of what I believe is an imperative comparison that we must make at this time. Chazal (see Rashi, Bereishis 29:32) tell us that sometimes we must draw parallels in order to highlight the differences between kedushah and its opposite.

At the end of the secular calendar year, many newspapers and journals make note of prominent people who passed on during the previous year. At the end of a decade, such as the recent 2010-2020, much of the media featured a retrospective of such leaders in their field who have passed away. I was particularly struck by the sad case of Harold Bloom, arguably the greatest literary critic of the twentieth century. The New York Times Magazine (December 29, 2019, Page 46) recounted his apparently many accomplishments. A professor of Literature at Yale for many decades, he produced, at his peak, 15 books a month and three introductions a week. He edited more than 600 books and employed at one time 16 full-time staffers to help him publish his prodigious literary output. The product of a frum home, he was born in the Bronx in 1930 to parents who never even learned how to read English.

Yet, Harold Bloom, although he was a child prodigy, has barely left a legacy worth getting excited about. By the end of his career, one of his students writes, “we were taught to roll our eyes at him.” Recently, “he was not taken seriously in the academy.” Despite incredible bekius – detailed knowledge – of vast areas of literature, he became something of a laughingstock. “His memory was superhuman; he carried in his head not just poems but whole libraries, word for word.” He would regale his students with his bekius much as – lehavdil – a boki b’Shas, such as one of today’s Shas Yidden would regale those with an inferior level of expertise. “If you saw him crossing the quad, you could quote a line of John Milton and he would…recite the lines that followed… He kept all of Paradise Lost,” one of the longest poems in the English language, more than 10,000 lines – in his mind-vault, unabridged,” along with the works of “Shakespeare, Blake, Wallace Stevens and countless others.”

What did all this literary diligence get him? Rolled eyes and little long range respect.

Sad, is it not? A man with such talent and ability wasted it all on the ephemeral and transient. I thought of the pathetic life of Harold Bloom as I recited the Hadran in my shul at our own Siyum Hashas last Shabbos: “We run and they run. We run [to receive] eternal life and they run into the pit of destruction.” There was a great deal of simcha – pure unadulterated joy – in that frigid stadium last week. It wasn’t just during the beautiful dancing and uplifting singing. It was a feeling of holy elation that reverberated through the arena and cascaded down from the bleachers to the beaming gedolim on the field.

Indeed, Chazal (Menachos 18a) record that one of the Tannaim, Yosef Habavli, became so ecstatic when learning Torah that his face virtually shone. Rav Elazar ben Shamua was so moved by this sight that he cried tears of joy, applying a posuk to the luminous Yosef Habavli: “O how I have loved Your Torah. It is constantly in my speech.”

I must confess that several times during the great Siyum, tears of joy flowed down my frozen cheeks. Unlike some of the teams who regularly compete at the stadium – so I’m told by experts – every person at MetLife, Barclays Center and those who participated elsewhere in various ways is a winner.

I mentioned at our Siyum that the Gemara (Shabbos 118b), in one of the main sources for making a Siyum, states that Abaye would make a banquet for the rabbis in honor of any Torah scholar who completed a volume of the Talmud. The Tiferes Shlomo (Ki Savo) explains that at any one of these events, all the Tannaim and Amoraim attend en masse, bringing down an incredible eis ratzon for everyone. I cannot imagine such passion and excitement for anyone completing all the plays of Shakespeare or any other discipline. In fact, the Zohar Hakodosh (Vayikra 13b) teaches that the entire Torah is replete with hidden references to the name of Hashem (see also the Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on the Torah). The Sefas Emes (quoted by his grandson in Likkutei Yehudah, Sukkos, page 17[137] relates the great joy of Torah study to this esoteric connection directly to Hashem.

The other difference between our joy and the secular involvement in a project or professional field is that for us there are no professors, specialists or experts who monopolize their subject. MetLife and the other venues demonstrated eloquently that the Torah belongs to everyone. No PhDs or even semicha necessary. Whoever seeks the word of Hashem has access just as much as the gedolim on the dais.

This time, the children not only made their own Siyum, but the same 90,000 sang and danced to celebrate their accomplishment.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Igros, No. 85) explained that the purpose of bringing small children to hakhel is not that they are obligated to learn, but that their absence would render the nation incomplete at one of the crucial moments replicating Maamad Har Sinai so they simply had to be there. This year’s Siyum reflected this paramount component of Klal Yisroel, our precious children.

Finally, please allow me to share a personal taste of the infinite that we experienced. The Olami foundation, sponsored by the Wolfson family, brought 400 unaffiliated young students, teenagers and young adults from all over the world to the Siyum Hashas. They were immersed in an intensive week of Torah experiences, including learning a real sugya (ani hamehapeich b’chararah), Shabbos in a hotel with great food, zemiros and meetings with successful baalei batim who shared with them how they successfully manage careers and full Torah lives.

On Thursday night, they participated in various kumzitzen in Torah homes, with singing and dancing stretching well beyond midnight. I was asked to speak at the kumzitz and felt a heavy weight of responsibility upon my shoulders. The wrong word could spell disaster, the right one could perhaps help to ignite a soul. A child of survivors, I spoke about not giving Hitler ym”sh a posthumous victory by allowing another Jewish neshamah to perish spiritually.

After we finished singing and dancing, I reluctantly said goodbye to my new fifty friends, but one group of four caught me by surprise. I enjoyed the Australian and South African accents and we played some Jewish geography. However, the chevrah of four shared with me that they live in Germany and were touched by my words. They admitted that they, too, felt as if they carried the burden of “beating Hitler” and promised to return with renewed vigor and more powerful ammunition.

Now that we were friends, I revealed that, I, too, was born in Germany, under different circumstances than them, in a D.P. camp after the war. They asked for my birth town and I shared that it was Rosenheim, specifically in the D.P. camp named Gabersee. One of them turned a bit white and then red, finally telling me that he lived just a mile from where I was born. I gave him a hug and told him that we were brothers and soldiers in the same battle. He wiped away a tear, as I did, people from different backgrounds and generations, but now connected forever.

All of this and so much more grew out of a siyum on Shas. Only the power of Torah can turn the mundane into significance, the temporal into eternity. Let us all strive to live meaningful lives and not waste a moment of infinite possibility.