Wheelchairs

Wheelchairs?

A very elderly man, stooped over, facing the ground, is wheeled by. His seat is found and he is put in it. The wheelchair is taken away. This man is here to stay — for four hours, at least.

It is bitter cold.

We are outside, in an unroofed football stadium.

It holds, and will soon fill with, 90,000 people.

I am perplexed. Should this man be in open air, extremely cold, for many hours? Is this healthy?

No matter.

He is settled in his seat.

He just can’t miss this. No matter what.

There will be no football game in this stadium today.

The 90,000 people will gather to mark something very different, very cerebral and very holy: the completion of the study of the Talmud, one folio page per day, on a schedule synchronized around the world.

I notice more wheelchairs going by. I bodily, existentially, know how bitter cold it is, which makes the commitment of each one of these 90,000 people, women and girls as well as boys and men, evident.

Then I see this.

Another wheelchair is rolled right along side me, on the ground level (where the football field would normally be).

This is not your ordinary wheelchair.

This is one of those wheelchairs for the seriously disabled, the kind of wheelchair equipped with machines, screens, headsets, tubes, packets, buttons, all kinds of handles, a car-sized battery, bars at different angles — and many attendants.

The individual in this sophisticated wheelchair is looking up at the raised podium, the same as I, the place where the speakers speak and the videos shine forth.

He has to be here.

I can’t imagine what it took for him to be here, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, January 1, 2020, under the gray sky in the bone-chilling air.

He just has to be here.

He can’t miss it.

And so I settle into an armchair seat to a slice of Jewish history, on a scale not seen in more than 1,950 years, the last time the Jewish people in their massive crowds gathered in Yerushalayim, at the pilgrimage to the Bais Hamikdosh, in an attempt to reach out to the Shaper of Jewish destiny, the Creator of us all, the Deliverer of the Torah.

Did this man whom I would put at 30 years of age, looking up from his paradoxical prison that keeps him mobile and part of society, also complete the study of the 2,711 pages of Shas, this Oral Torah that paradoxically was put to written form some 1,700 years ago? I have no way of knowing, but I do know that at this outsized, beyond-scale gathering, a human being with ALS did complete the synchronized, seven-and-a-half year daily Talmudic trek with eye movements connected to a computer.

Everybody, or at least people of every imaginable type, had to come to this celebration.

They had to be here.

They just couldn’t miss it.

The people who get up at 5 a.m. when it is 20 below outside to head to their daily class.

The people who never studied Talmud before, but seven-and-a-half years ago started the trek without the appropriate language skills.

Mostly, the people whom I shall never see, confined to a wheelchair or not, the people I will never know, never meet, never sit next to, the people who dig a hole, a big one, in their lives.

A hole of time.

A hole as rigid, as unyielding, as a nuclear silo. A hole that they fill, usually in the dark, before sunrise or after sunset, day after day, days that are ordinary and days that are marked by a levayah or a wedding or an exam or a storm or anything else, 365 days a year, year after year — a hole they fill with a personal encounter with the knotty and recalcitrant, yet rich and nurturing words of Torah Sheba’al Peh.

These are the unseen people who are dedicated to their own spiritual growth, but coextensively constitute the commitment that keeps Judaism alive day by day, time slot by time slot. No matter what.

These are the people who are at one with those in the wheelchairs, even as those in the chairs — and in countless other difficult places — are at one with the other members of the largest, steadiest, most curious fraternity in the world: the Daf Yomi students, the daily studiers of the Oral Torah.

Everybody here is a story. I feel like I am in Eretz Yisroel, where I know I could stop anyone on the street and find the child of a Holocaust survivor, or a veteran of war, or a tech-innovator, or a person who has mastered the same piece of Torah I have, or a miracle survivor of an experimental medical treatment, or a person beaten down by the unforgiving Middle Eastern sun and circumstance — a story. It is the same here, in this stadium. Everyone is a story. I just know it. So, since I have arrived early, I introduce myself to a few people at random.

Just like that, I meet Jules Fleischer. He was appointed by President George W. Bush to the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad — that is, for the care of Jewish cemeteries in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the cemeteries whose natural, non-American caretakers were murdered. “Must be a lot of cemeteries,” I say to Fleischer. “All of Poland is a cemetery,” he says.

I turn to the person seated next to me. He introduces himself: Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who is here thanks to President Trump, who commuted his sentence in 2017.

So I encounter another story, not of Rubashkin per se, but of what you might miss if you were watching this celebration on a screen at one of hundreds of hook-ups around the world. Perhaps you might have missed it even if you were in the MetLife stands. This serious, solemn and inspiring event was also, on the floor level, a social event, at least where I sit, next to Rubashkin. The number of people who want to say hello to him, who want to trade a word with him, who want to have their picture taken with him, is uncountable.

Simultaneously with trying to listen to the speakers on the podium before me, I am bending and dodging the bodies crowding around my recognizable seat mate.

I meet Jason Bedrick of Phoenix, director of policy of “edChoice,” a national group based in Minneapolis that advocates in state legislatures and school boards for school vouchers and other mechanisms of school choice.

Just in case I mistakenly think that Bedrick is some kind of theoretician, he, upon hearing that I am from Colorado, unfolds in an instant the story of the success and ultimate failure of the school voucher plan in Douglas County, south of Denver.

I spot Rabbi Elchanan Adler, a teacher of Talmud at Yeshiva University. We leave the event together, heading back to a common location, Passaic, New Jersey. With the massive crowds flowing outward, what are the chances that any of the rabbi’s students will bump into him? Lo and behold, a student emerges from the crowd to greet his rebbi in respect and friendship, which the rebbi enthusiastically returns. Okay, a nice coincidence. But then, from this massive crowd, it happens again and again. It happens seven times!

Rabbi Adler is just one rebbi among, who knows, thousands of rabbeim in this crowd. The relationships, the connections, the links to Rabbi Adler replicate and multiply across the masses at this stadium and at the many more at locations around the globe.

This is the largest, strongest, longest-lasting fraternity in the world.

It is not just horizontal, bridging spiritual seekers in this time, in this era. But vertical, bridging the generations, backward, all the way to the origin point at Sinai, and forward, to the ultimate redemption.

This is the intergenerational fraternity.

Like everyone in this stadium, I turn not only to the person next to me, and not only to the speakers on the podium, but in a very different direction.

For me and for many, the heart of this gathering is prayer unlike any other prayer. This is communal prayer, when the community is 90,000 Jews davening together. This is the heart of the event — the powerful, thoughtful and impassioned speeches notwithstanding. On occasion, I can hear an amazing speech somewhere else; I cannot daven together with 90,000 people anywhere else.

Except that I am on the ground level, such that as I look up in prayer, as everyone else is looking up, for some reason I am moved to glance at everyone looking up. And for some reason, I count the layers of people, that is, the levels of this stadium.

There are seven levels.

We seven layers of people in prayer, looking up . . . to?

Looking beyond.

Looking to . . . eight.

Seven in Jewish thought specifies the natural world, the world of the human sequence, the world of the week, which all of humanity accepts, and this seven-count began in Bereishis, in the Torah.

Eight signifies the world beyond.

Beyond the natural world.

We, all seven layers of us, are looking upward, seeing this gray, endless sky above us, beyond this massive stadium, looking vertically, standing as one single minyan in prayer to the Creator of us all, each one of us with a personal plea in our hearts. We reverse the physical laws around us that heat rises and cold falls, standing here in the cold below, feeling that our prayers, our spiritual heat, rises, that we see beyond seven to . . . eight, connected to the world beyond human sequence.

As the chazzan recites the mourner’s Kaddish, I am moved to recite Kaddish, too. How soon will it be when I can pray in a single minyan of 90,000 people again? I mourn those who did not have the opportunity to be part of this, not least my mother and my father of blessed memory.

Humor and its opposite. These too — the pith of worldliness — invade this stadium. In one of the videos shone before the celebration commenced, the story is told of the gentile manager of Madison Square Garden, the site of the first very large Siyum Hashas in 1990. Twenty-one thousand people came.

The stadium, which had been booked for that date by the Barnum and Bailey Circus, became available only because Madison Square Garden reserves the right to buy out any contract, and because a sympathetic philanthropist stepped up and provided the funds to buy out the circus contract. This unheard of act of magnanimity, plus the previously unseen and indeed unimagined crowd gathered in spiritual-intellectual solidarity, so moved the Madison Square Garden managers that the next day one of them exclaimed: “Rabbi, why don’t you study two pages a day and cut the next celebration to three years from now?”

I burst out laughing. Anyone who has ever struggled to understand an entire daf in a single day will understand.

We all understand, alas, this too:

Everyone, a story. Upon entering, I notice an extraordinarily large number of personnel working the stadium. Security is everywhere. Photographers. Staff. Police. And, I was surprised to see, though I shouldn’t have been, people whose badges said “medical” — Hatzolah. I introduce myself to one of the medical personnel.

I say to him that I hope he has no work to do today. He gives me a look, half-directed not at me but into some other sphere; half-agitated but also in control, as he has to be. He says he’s paid his dues this week already. “I was the first one (of the first responders) into Rabbi Rottenberg’s house” — the house in Monsey, NY, attacked by a machete-wielding, would-be killer on the seventh night of Chanukah.

This world, too, frames this affirmative, elevated, outsized gathering.

It is billed as a celebration of the entire Jewish people, of Klal Yisroel. Does this make sense? Is the entire Jewish people studying a page of Gemara every day?

Observe:

When the final words of Talmud Bavli are recited, officially concluding the seven-and-a-half year cycle, and the special Hadran-commitment to restart the long cycle all over again is recited, the special Kaddish follows. The second it is completed, the entire stadium erupts in joyous dancing and song that continues for 20 or 30 minutes without let-up.

Does this make sense? If you put your heart and soul into a sacred multi-year project, it more than makes sense. But what about everybody else?

Not everyone in this crowd studies a page of Gemara every day. And not everyone who committed to do so necessarily finished the task. Why should everyone, without distinction, break out in dance and song?

The answer came in 1973 as the pioneers of the Yerushalayim neighborhood of Sanhedria Murchevet marked Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos on that patch of holy land for the first time in 2,000 years. As we danced on Shemini Atzeres-Simchas Torah, my neighbor, Gershon Brafman, turned to me and said: “Why should everyone dance on Simchas Torah? Not everyone is studying Torah, so why do they rejoice?” He paused, then said: “And if your brother is rejoicing, don’t you rejoice also?”

All of Klal Yisroel is rejoicing at Met Life — rejoicing as brothers.

Bottom line: the how, and more important, the why.

How does one keep a commitment 2,711 days in a row? What if there is a wedding? Hold the daily Daf Yomi shiur during a break in the wedding. How does one study Gemara if one never did before and knows no Hebrew or Aramaic? Get the ArtScroll translation, and go to a shiur in the vernacular you know: English, French, whatever. What if you think you can never, ever, finish a 2,711-day discipline? “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as Rabbi Yissacher Frand put it.

The hows multiply.

The hows, all of them, do find their solutions, if the will — the why — is there.

So, why?

At some length, more than one speaker and video spelled out how daily Gemara study can transform your life.

Other speakers said: The Torah is the essence of the Jewish people.

Then, another person said:

Daf Yomi is like breathing. There is no vacation from breathing” even if you are in a wheelchair, or at a high point in life, or a low point in life . . . “because the words of Torah are our life.”

Our breath.

Why?

Because there is no vacation from breathing.