Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I am not crying over my misfortune, but rather, over this beauty of yours that will decompose in the earth, as Rabbi Yoḥanan’s beauty caused him to consider human mortality. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep. Both cried over the fleeting nature of beauty in the world and death that eventually overcomes all.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Elazar said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.
~ Berakhot 5b, Babylonian Talmud (William Davidson Talmud with English and Modern Hebrew translations)
This passage is out of the first Tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot. In this story, the rabbis affirm that life is fragile and beautiful and fleeting, but they are in it together.
And a fitting analogy for the current moment in time in which our world finds itself, as we face a global pandemic threatening millions of lives.
I first read the passage above, and the section it is from, months and a lifetime ago, while taking part in what is known as Daf Yomi, or the study of Talmud in one page a day. At times referred to as “the World’s Largest Book Group,” “Daf Yomi” means, literally, “one page a day” in Hebrew. All over the world, people are studying the same page of Talmud every single day. This tradition began in the early 20th century Poland by Rabbi Meir Shapiro. We are currently in the 14th cycle of Daf Yomi, which began on January 5, 2020.
It is really hard to explain what the Talmud is — there is no succinct description. My Jewish Learning describes it as:
Talmud (literally, “study”) is the generic term for the documents that comment and expand upon the Mishnah (“repeating”), the first work of rabbinic law, published around the year 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch in the land of Israel.
At its core, the Talmud is an expansive collection of multi-generational rabbinic discussions, stories and guidelines that emerged out of the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.. In the Talmud, everything related to Jewish life is discussed, with no topic too big or small for their consideration. They range from religious practice to ethics, personal responsibility, parenting, marriage, hygiene, and food to economics, architecture and civil engineering.
As such, the Talmud is expansive in its scope, and complex, appearing messy and nonsensical at times, and incandescent at others. Rabbis argue and discuss ideas across hundreds of years of distance from one another. This document is actually layers upon layers of thought and consideration, like lawyers arguing with Supreme Court Justices about case precedence and historical documents like the Constitution. But as I have studied everything from art historical critiques of the Impressionists to Joseph Campbell to Buddhist philosophy, I thought I was up to the challenge.
I stumbled upon the practice of Daf Yomi late in 2019, as word got around that the latest cycle was ending. I was looking for some way to connect more with Jewish practice, and this fit the bill. The new one was set to start on January 5th. At first, I started with a short daily podcast that summarizes the daily daf, and read the daf myself on a website called Sefaria, which has a library of English and Modern Hebrew translations of major and minor Jewish texts going back 3,000 years.
A couple of weeks in, I also discovered a group called Hadran, an Israeli not-for-profit founded by a group of women who study Talmud, which, in addition to a website with resources and guides for reading Talmud, posts a daily podcast and hosts a Facebook group. In finding this resource, in addition to Sefaria, I knew that I would have the support to undertake such an expansive endeavor, despite the fact that my Hebrew language skills are rusty at best.
Daf Yomi embodies a global community, which is part of the original impetus behind it. Worldwide, there are podcasts, discussion groups and Zoom meetings; up until a couple of weeks ago, before the world went into lockdown, there were in-person classes, meetups and groups. The purpose of this community is to discuss the meaning of each daf, whether that is giving it historical context or applying it to contemporary life. More knowledgeable people help guide us newbies through the text. Or we sit together, virtual book group-like in our Zoom meetings, and simply discuss what everyone thinks a particular section means. Still others write their interpretations in the Facebook groups, and we respond in the comments. It becomes much like the ancient rabbis who wrote the Talmud from the start, a shared experience of people discussing and arguing across time and space — an inter-connected web of voices.
The Talmud was written in the aftermath of a collective trauma, the destruction of the temple and the murder and exile of thousands of Jews from their ancestral home of Israel. For the Jews of the Talmud, as they settled as minorities across the Diaspora, life was tenuous, based upon how long the good will of a particular regime would last before they would be persecuted and forced to move on again. They struggled to make sense of a very changed world, to find new meaning in the burning remains of their way of life. The Talmud is the result of that search for meaning, and why it resonates today: there is always a need to find meaning in the shifting sands of life. In that way, the Talmud is timeless.
When the world started to cave in around me a couple of weeks ago — lockdowns, cancellations of school and work and travel and events worldwide, announcements and governmental orders to “shelter-in-place,” and the endless uptick in cases and deaths from this terrible virus– I found myself grateful for my Daf Yomi practice. Why? On the outside, it seems like just another thing to keep track of amidst the chaos. But it was something solid in my now momentary, unstable world. Also, it was something to do every day — it would keep me focused on something besides the bad news. Thirdly, I took comfort in its complexity, feeling that weaving my way through Talmud would help me make sense of my own disorientated existence. And lastly, that the rabbis of this time period had lived through worse than what I was experiencing, and their words had survived. Out of the ashes of their devastated world, they had built a legacy and a foundation for all the Jews who came after them, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
Wreckage leads to transformation. Wreckage leads to growth and change. Wreckage allows you to rebuild something with meaning and structure, something that lasts.
Consider this: the temple fell, but what was created in its ashes is sounder and more eternal than any stone building. An entire religion, oriented instead towards prescribed actions and symbolic, not literal, place, was built instead. The practices of this religion, and its ideas, principles, motivations and philosophy were etched out in the Talmud, and it is because of this fact that Judaism even still exists to this day.
Here, now, in this time and place, we have our own shattered world. Our own temple — capitalism, globalism, our contemporary liberal lives – I don’t even know how to describe it – is destroyed.
What will we build out of its ashes?
Will we finally begin to recognize our interconnectedness, and bring empathy into our daily actions?
Will we build economies and societies that are fair to everyone, with adequate pay, guaranteed health care, and policies that support the sick, disabled, elderly and parents caring for children?
Will we create something lasting for our children, that they could share with their children — l’dor v’dor?
The Talmud is concerned with all these ideas, because these ideas matter. What we do in this moment matters. That’s why everyone is blowing up your social media feeds with activities and things to do during this time. We don’t want to waste it. We have realized how precious our world is, and how we need to save it.
Just as the rabbis looked at their world, and said, how do we save what we hold precious?
And I believe it is happening. Conversations are happening. People are connecting. Ideas about how to emerge from this moment in time with lives worth living, are being voiced and affirmed.
The value of life is suddenly first and foremost. After it was suggested that we all just go back to work in a couple of weeks and let the elderly and infirm die of COVID-19, we suddenly realized how, as a society, could not disregard others’ lives in that manner. As grocery store workers, delivery drivers, garbage collectors, postal workers and healthcare providers became heroic frontline soldiers in a war with a microscopic virus, we realized the value of everyone’s work, no matter how much money they made. Communities mobilized, with teachers suddenly transitioning to online education, parents suddenly homeschooling, and everyone who could working from home. We stay home to protect ourselves, but mostly to protect each other.
We started to look around and see how could we help each other. What kind of new, more ethical, holistic and compassionate world can we create out of this? What actions should we take going forward?
In Berakhot 5b, the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, the rabbis literally pull each other up out of their illness. “Is your suffering dear to you?” they ask one another. They mean, what will you learn from your suffering, and how can I help you get through it?
This is a new reality we are in, truly, it is. And yet, in every daf I read, I see something that resonates for me today. Ancient rabbis dole out their legacies daily. Maybe it is the mundanity of my life right now, filled with the minutiae of living in a confined space, or perhaps it is the overwhelming complexity of it — but embedded in that text is a guide to living in the aftermath of destruction. The lessons are timeless and clear for me. Keep on keeping on. Pay attention to your actions. Do the right thing. Treat your neighbor and the stranger with kindness. Live for something bigger than yourself.
Consider your legacy at the end of this chapter of your life. For the rabbis truly did at the end of theirs.