Where is the Finish Line of Yiddishkeit?

At the 13th Siyum Hashas of the Daf Yomi in NY, Rav Chaim Kanievsky זצוק״ל was live streamed from his tiny apartment in Bnei Brak. After making the Siyum, they asked Rav Chaim to give a Bracha to all those who had finished Shas. He responded, with his signature smile to those who finished Shas: “You should merit to know Shas.”

We all know that qualitatively, there's a big difference between finishing and knowing. Of those that finish Shas, there are few who know it, and none that know it like Rav Chaim knew it.

In a those few short words, Rav Chaim exposed the shame of most learners of the Daf Yomi. We simply don't know it. And he gave us all a bracha to remedy that fact.

Of course, the same is true of any intellectual endeavor. Merely completing a study of the material does not automatically convey knowledge. Once we have finished it, we need to constantly review and relearn it until we assimilate the material into our minds. And even once we have mastered a particular text or curriculum, we are charged with the constant battle against forgetting.

For this reason, Talmud Torah is a lifelong pursuit. We are constantly staving off the forgetfulness that threatens to wipe away our efforts. If we take the obligation of knowing Torah seriously, it necessitates a certain anxiety for which a diligent commitment to Torah is the antidote. Although, antidote is probably the wrong word. The anxiety never really goes away, some of us simply get better at remembering. Others tragically settle, exchanging nervousness for sadness. We adjust our expectations so that we don't really expect that we'll ever achieve “knowing”.

I seems then, that a life of Talmud Torah is a life of managing the anxiety of future failure, and/or the depression of never achieving success. True Simcha in Torah and Mitzvos is thus, by definition, quite rare, and reserved for the privileged few who are capable of superhuman efforts. This, in itself, is devastatingly disheartening.

But it doesn't need to be this way.

This entire line of thinking hinges upon an assumption that that knowing is the same as remembering. But with regards to Talmud Torah, perfect recall is only one type of knowing. There is another, completely different kind of knowledge. It's the knowing that we refer to when we're “getting to know” another person.

To illustrate: I think I can safely say that I know my wife and children in that I am in no danger of forgetting them. Nevertheless, the depth of any person's mind and heart are vast, even infinite. There are thoughts, ideas and perspectives that I am constantly uncovering, even in the people I know the best in the world. Or perhaps especially in the people I know best in the world.

The same is true of myself. There is more of me for me to get to know. There are layers of personality, dreams, hopes, habits, weakness, strength and potential that I doubt I have even begun to discover. Knowing myself then, has no finish line.

Indeed, if it were ever possible to get to the bottom of ourselves, we'd be disappointed. Such limitation would be upsetting. It is our belief in our own unknowability that gives us the courage to try new things, to challenge ourselves and to grow. This sense of mystery is the source of our creativity, and the joy of building relationships, getting married, raising children, and growing our careers. There is always more to learn, always more to engage, alway more to discover.

How sad is it then, when we look forward to the finish lines in life, relationships and Torah. This is not to say that we shouldn't celebrate milestones. Of course we should. But only because they herald new beginnings, new chances to learn, discover and know. Every Siyum opens with the words הדרן עלך – we'll come back to you. It's never about the finish line.

Aliza and I often joke with each other that maybe we'll get a nap in a decade or two when our kids graduate from high school. But challenging as raising children is, we are not looking forward to that finish line either. Building a family is the most daunting, exhausting, exhilarating experience of our lives. And we're learning tons by doing it.

Truthfully, the acid test of any relationship is how we view the finish lines. If you're counting down the minutes to the end of a date, chances are that this relationship is not going work out.

The same is true of building a community, learning Shas, growing businesses, and developing healthy eating habits. Whatever it is that we are engaged in, the finish line should not be the goal. Everyone knows that hitting your “goal weight” is unsustainable if it is not accompanied by constant habitual mindful eating. Without the work of knowing ourselves better, the goals are undone as quickly as they are achieved.

We can now appreciate that something fundamental changes when the importance of the finish line disappears: The anxieties of failure are relegated to the back burner. The depression of non-achievement dissolves. In their place, we discover a sense of purpose, direction and the joy of discovery.

Perhaps it is for this reason, that while Rav Chaim was the greatest masmid of our generation and his unmatched diligence was the stuff of legends, he never seemed stressed about it. He smiled and joked and was genuinely relaxed.

In the past few days, many people have noted that Rav Chaim finished Kol HaTorah Kula every year. I don't think that this is accurate. He made a Siyum on everything, but he wasn't finishing it, he was getting to know it. He was constantly enjoying a date with the Torah, deepening his understanding of the Wisdom of Hashem.

Hashem should help us to continue his legacy of never finishing, to get to know Torah, Hashem and each other, to experience the joy that comes with living in the world of Torah and Mitzvos.