ours is not a linear tradition
This week I unexpectedly entered the zeitgeist of Daf Yomi, the spiritual practice of studying one page (both sides!) of Talmud every day. With 2,711 pages, that project takes about 7.5 years. The first cycle began on Rosh Hashanah in 1923. And we just kicked off the 14th cycle this past Sunday. No doubt this is one of the world's most preposterous book groups. I must be honest, I have tried this before. I make no promises that I will finish it. But what feels new this time around is that there is a real excitement (in niche circles) that extends beyond the orthodox world.
The most important insight from this week's learning for me is that the premise of the Talmud is that there is no beginning and no end. אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, Ain mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah, nothing comes before or after in the world of Torah. Which is to say, it's an ongoing cycle, forever cross-referencing itself. This is the fundamental nature of Torah, and perhaps the world (especially if Torah is the blueprint for the world!). This truth is most pronounced at the seams, in moments of apparent beginning, such as starting a new Daf Yomi cycle, and moments of closure, such as concluding a book of Torah as we do this week.
Tomorrow morning we will read parashat Vayechi, concluding the mythic narratives of our genesis ancestors at Jacob's deathbed. And we will together study the magic of our anachronistic tradition that manages to link the blessings he offers to his grandsons to the recitation of the Shema, a text that in theory wasn't revealed until Deuteronomy. And a prayer practice that wasn't established until the Mishnah (220 CE). Ain mukdam u'm'uchar ba'Torah, ours is not a linear tradition!
This seems fitting as the entire first week of Daf Yomi so far has focused on questions related to the Shema. Why we say, how often we say, when we say? For example when the Torah says, "When we lie down and when we rise up," does it mean when we lie down in bed, or when the sun "lies down," as in when evening begins? It "begins" with this question:
מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בָּעֲרָבִין / Me'eimatai korin et shema b'aravin?
From when does one recite the evening Shema?
About this opening question, my dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig shared this story, which is both a cautionary tale for studying Talmud and an inspiration for our own practice of reciting the Shema:
"Reb Zusha of Hanipol was wise in the world of mysticism but thought of himself as ignorant in terms of the revealed tradition. He asked R' Shmelke of Nicholsburg if they might learn together; Zusha teaching the hidden/kabbalistic tradition and Shmelke instructing him in the revealed/rabbinic tradition. R' Shmelke began with the first Mishnah of Brachot, reading, "Me'eimatai/From what time can one recite the Shema?" Immediately, Reb Zusha fell upon his face, "How do you know me'eimatai means 'from what time?' Rather, might it mean that on a daily basis we need to recite the Shema from a place of eimah/awe and wonder?!"
The story concludes, delightfully, with R' Shmelke passing R' Zusha the book and saying, "You teach!"
For those of us undertaking to learn just about anything, whether it's the alef-bet, one tractate, or the entirety of the Talmud, my prayer is that we take up the tradition of reading texts playfully, falling upon our faces in amazement, and bringing awe and wonder into all of our learning.
Hazak hazak v'nithazek / חזק חזק ונתחזק
May we all gather strength and courage from our learning and from each other.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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