The real iron-men
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
Joyful crowds filled more than one sports stadium this week. On the one side of the Atlantic, they gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of the physical body; on the other side they were celebrating the achievements of the soul. On the one side they were mere spectators who had come to watch others perform; on the other side they were active participants taking part themselves. When they left the stadium in London it was the end, when they took leave in New Jersey it was only just the beginning. At the Olympic stadium they were watching the 30th Olympic Games; at the MetLife stadium they were joining thousands in the 12th conclusion of the Talmud with the "daf-hayomi" cycle.
The Olympics needs no introduction - from its very inception by the ancient Greeks it has always been the highest platform to showcase the ability of the human body. There can be nothing more antithetical to the Olympics and what it represents than the Talmud. If the Olympics are the showcase for the ability of the body - the physical; then the Talmud and its 2711 double-sided pages is the showcase for the ability of the mind, the soul - the spiritual. 2711 pages of discussion, debate, and analysis by the Talmudic sages (100BCE - 300CE) - jam-packed with Jewish law, philosophy, mysticism, ethics, history and much more. So large in content, so diverse in subjects discussed and so deep in knowledge, this ultimate Jewish book is often referred to as "The Yam Hatalmud" - "The sea of the Talmud" - vast, deep and intricate like the oceans of the world.
Yet there are those who are brave enough to swim across this mighty body of water. Not a handful of people, tens of thousands. They dedicate thousands of hours, patiently navigating one page a day until after seven and a half years they finish this ultimate ultra-marathon. This regimen - known as the "daf-hayomi" - "page a day" program, in which the same page of Talmud is studied by Jews throughout the world every day, completing the entire Talmud in consequence one day at a time over seven and a half years - was first established by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Vienna in 1923. This program has fostered Torah study like few others, has made the Talmud accessible to many laymen and has fulfilled the desire of its founder to serve as a unifying factor for Jews of all backgrounds throughout the world. It was this seven and a half year "swim" that these real ironmen had come to celebrate in MetLife stadium. They were joined in the ground by over one hundred thousand fellow "swimmers" and others who had taken inspiration from them to begin a swim of their own; tens of thousands more participating by live-feed all over the world and dozens of communities worldwide who made their own events. Here too, in Sydney, a couple hundred people got together to celebrate this monumental occasion and pay tribute to our very own "swimmers".
The triumph of an Olympiad is the pinnacle, a point of rest, the triumph of the Jewish soul is the drive and vigor to go on further. Minutes after the 2711th page was concluded, page number one was started again. When the spectators left the Olympic stadium it was the end; when they left MetLife stadium the return swim had already begun.
It would be naïve to think that there is no pleasure in the triumph of the human body but as Jews it has always been about the achievement of the mind, the triumph of the spirit, the success of the soul. At the of the day, we all leave behind a monument to our existence in this world, for some it's an Olympic medal, for others it's a life of refinement, beyond self- glory - it's a life of greater good.