Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Daily Show

Why would a guy with a large family, a new job, and a running obsession take on a new daily commitment? Although I would love to tell you the answer, I can't. I'm trying to figure it out for myself.

You don't have to be in my world, or even Jewish to have heard about the event that took place this past August at Met Life Stadium. Intrigued by a gathering involving tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews, the media covered this past summer's Daf Yomi Siyum. The event involved the completing of the entire Talmud at a rate of two pages per day over a seven and a half year period. For the uninitiated, this might not sound so challenging, but imagine studying a text in a foreign language, with no punctuation and vowelization, while reading legal arguments about abstract and occasionally arcane topics, and you begin to get a clue of what is involved. Now imagine doing this every single day for more than seven years. On vacation? Doesn't matter? In the hospital? Keep on studying. Not in the mood? Too bad. Amazingly, there are tens of thousands of people who did this and continue to do so as the new cycle is underway.

I was there at the stadium that day. Not as one of those completing the talmud, or, even as a celebrant. I felt that, as a father, I should bring my older sons with me. I was in the middle of a prolonged crisis of faith, where serious talmudic study and even prayer, felt like a burden. Unlike many who were in the crowd that night, I left the stadium with no plan of joining the new cycle which would begin the following day.

It hadn't always been that way. After finally figuring how to study talmud in my 20s, I dove in pretty seriously. I openly spoke of my plan to finish before I reached the age of 40. I made progress, both through the Daf Yomi system, as well as more in depth study with friends. Then life happened and I fell off the wagon a bit. I comforted myself by telling myself that my teaching to my students counted as a form of study. Before I knew it, the goal of finishing the talmud faded from my mind. In fact, I started a new form of daily communion; running.

Where I had once felt the need to master Jewish law, lore and philosophy, I now felt a need to do speed work and hill repeats. While Jewish law kept me from developing one of those obsessive streaks of running every day, I soon was running each day when it was permissible. While I occasionally felt guilty, I had a plethora of answers that kept my guilt from growing strong enough to move me to change.

I felt like a hypocrite as I encouraged my children and students to study, while I did not. My feeling of unease grew as I started to struggle with religious doubts. I didn't exactly embrace them, but I can't say that I worked hard for answers.

Amazingly, my oldest son, who already spends many hours a day studying talmud, started to do the Daf. Although I occasionally studied with him, I didn't think much about it. It was more of a way to connect with my son, than a religious act.

Recently, I decided to stop being passive and started poking at my doubts. I had some good conversations, read some good books and essays, and did a little soul searching. On Yom Kippur I made a somewhat modest decision. I decided I would join with Daf Yomi for the next volume of the talmud. For the next six months, I will be trying an experiment. As I travel for work, I will continue my study. As the due date of our 8th child approaches, I will do the daf. As I feed my addictive personality with daily doses of mileage, I will give it a second helping as I study each day.

Where will this lead me? I have no idea. As I occasionally do when I put on my running shoes, I am going to just get started and see where I end up.

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