Although January 1 is an important date on the secular calendar, it usually has little significance in the Torah community. Other than getting used to writing a different number on checks and having an extra day off (in Chutz LaAretz), it generally does not engender much excitement.
This year, of course, is different: It will be the date of the grand Siyum HaShas. It marks a time to celebrate the Torah in an almost unprecedented way, as hundreds of thousands join in celebrating the tremendous accomplishment of so many tens of thousands of learners. This is very important in several ways:
First, the many sold-out stadiums are a dream come true beyond the wildest dreams of the survivors of the Holocaust just a generation ago. They were incredulous at the thought that the Torah world would ever be resurrected in the alien secular world that dominated the landscape both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Yisrael. The depth and breadth of the Torah community, as represented by this massive display of fealty to the importance of Torah learning and observance, is a colossal statement that “We have not only survived – we have grown and prospered and have truly arrived as a community! No longer are the Orthodox the poor stepsiblings of the Reform and Conservative movements. We are a huge, dynamic, and growing force – indeed, we are the present and future of the Jewish people!”
Second, given the location of the Siyum – at some of the premier sports cathedrals around the world – several of the speakers are sure to make the fairly obvious point regarding the famous prayer of Rabbi Nechuniah ben HaKanah that is recited at every siyum:
“We thank You, Hashem, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners... We arise early and toil in Torah, while they rise early and engage in worthless pursuits... We labor... and receive a reward, while they labor and will not be rewarded. We run towards eternal life, while they run to the grave...”
They may not state it explicitly. Still, there will be a clear inference at the differences between the typical beer-drinking, tailgate-partying NFL crowd – who cheer their muscle-bound heroes as they try to move a small pigskin ball down the field – and the scholarly, spiritual, intellectually-inclined thousands who are heroes of another kind. Mild-mannered heroes who face the same stresses of life as all of us, while relentlessly engaging in an often difficult and complex daily intellectual pursuit – no matter how busy or tired or stressed out – for a long period of time. Anyone familiar with challenge can attest to the determination required to make it through any medium-size masechta, let alone the entire Talmud. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are some positive comparisons that can be made to the regular inhabitants of the stadium in addition to the negative ones. And those comparisons are important, particularly in the Chanukah season.
Clearly, a major aspect of the Chanukah story is the relationship between “Greek culture” and Torah values. It may come as a surprise to some, but the challenge of Greek to Torah values continued for hundreds of years. The Greeks arrived with Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Their culture increasingly dominated the Jewish community for 165 years until the Chashmonean revolt in 167 BCE, continuing – most unfortunately – under the mostly Hellenist Chashmonean Kingdom for another hundred years after the brief glorious period of the Chanukah story. One of the reasons that it took so long for the revolt to take place (and that its effects were mostly short-lived) is that – when kept in the proper perspective and boundaries – there is much in “Greek culture” that is, in fact, positive, and that can enhance a proper Torah lifestyle.
Alexander was welcomed with open arms by the Jewish community, and he initially brought much that was good. It was only over time, when Hellenistic values began to become primary, and Jewish values secondary, that troubles began. It happened again with the grandchildren of the Chashmoneans who became corrupt and decadent. And the challenge continues for us today, as well, as we seek to keep our Jewish values primary as we embrace much of the Western society around us.
By way of illustration, let us consider that there might be more to learn from the MetLife venue than merely to congratulate ourselves on our higher calling. In fact, a Daf Yomi finalist has more than a little in common with the elite athletes that make it to the NFL. Although not in vogue in the yeshivah world, it is well known among educators that as long as it is kept in proper perspective, sports can play a very positive role. They are an important part of training youngsters to strive for excellence and push themselves beyond preconceived limits in the pursuit of a goal. Whether it is in garnering the physical and mental toughness to keep practicing a skill until it is mastered, or the pushing of one’s mind and body towards ever-increasing levels of strength and endurance, or the importance of strategy and delaying short-term pleasure to accomplish a long-term goal, or in learning the importance of teamwork and appreciating the role that everyone has in the mutual success, to balancing the different demands on one’s time, attention, energy, and passion – organized sports can provide excellent training in the development of a mature, responsible adult who is ready to take on the challenges of life.
Furthermore, the level of dedication that it takes for anyone to make it to the roster of an NFL team is worthy of respect and admiration. Anyone who finds success on a major league team did not get there by innate talent alone, but by combining G-d-given gifts with the expending of countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve that station in life. It is perhaps the toughness of mind and spirit, in addition to body, that is required to win, that attracts the attention of many famous intellectuals, who are known to be rabid sports fans. (I have a sneaky suspicion that more than a few Daf Yomi learners have a secret propensity to watch an NFL game occasionally, and being in the stadium will thus be exciting for them on another level as well.)
In summary, then, the value of professional sports for a Torah Jew is not simple. On the one hand, if it is merely mindless entertainment, it might not be forbidden per se, but has little value. I often recall that a perfect encapsulation of professional sports was once phrased by a famous sportscaster that “My job is to create the illusion that it matters.” It is of constant amazement to learners of Daf Yomi (for example) that millions of people get crazed in their passion over which group of overpaid jocks won a ballgame, and can discuss the statistics and odds for hours, while their eyes glaze over at even the most non-trivial Torah thought. Truly, “We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners…”
On the other hand, appreciation of the work ethic that it takes to excel and become a champion, and the grace and beauty of those who have perfected their abilities, can be a positive influence in one’s life and a source of inspiration towards hard work and achievement. Space does not permit a full discussion here, but there are many classic sources, particularly the Rambam, that speak of the halachic imperative of striving for fitness and keeping one’s body healthy and strong for avodas Hashem.1
If that is the case, then the deeper p’shat in Rabbi Nechuniah ben HaKanah’s words might lie primarily not in the initial comparison (“We rise and they rise”), but in the contrasting purpose (“We rise for X while they rise for Y”). One might correctly appreciate the training of an athlete as time well spent, but only if the final goal is truly a worthy one. If the goal of improving one’s mental and physical capabilities is only to excel in this-worldly activities, it is ultimately for naught. In the words of Koheles, anything that is purely for improving a temporal life of here today and gone tomorrow – or for what is “under the sun” – is ultimately valueless, or “hevel havalim.” But if the goal is to bring us to enhance our Jewish values and enter the World to Come with the maximum of accomplishment in this world, then perhaps more than grudging admiration might be granted for those who rise early and work and run to prepare themselves for a Higher calling.
The relationship between the ethic of spiritual, intellectual striving and that of beauty, grace, physical excellence is a tension that has always been there, before the challenge of Hellenism, all the way back to the sons of Noah. Pure energy, as represented by Cham was to be made subservient to the spiritual Sheim, and the esthetic Yefes. The ideal is expressed as:
May Hashem enlarge and beautify (the beauty) of Yefes, and make it subservient within the Tents of Sheim/Israel (B’reishis 9:27).
Rather than just drawing contrasts, it might behoove us to appreciate the ethical aspects of sport, art, and beauty under the influence of Torah. As we sit in a great tent of Yefes in order to appreciate the great achievements of Sheim, may we look forward to the time that we are able to fully actualize the blessing of harmonizing all of these in the proper way in Hashem’s eternal plan.
Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, formerly a rav at Young Israel of Forest Hills and in Oregon, now serves as a writer and tour guide in Lavon, Israel, and seeks to promote Jewish unity and mutual appreciation among all sectors of our people. He blogs at www.libibamizrach.blogspot.com.