As the excitement of the Siyum HaShas transitions into the daily grind of keeping up with “the daf,” I’d like to offer a different perspective of Gemara learning by focusing not as much on the Gemara’s content, but its form.
Discussions in the Gemara begin with Mishnayos, simple and straightforward statements, typically about Jewish law. The Gemara then proceeds to dissect these simple statements by asking questions and backtracking on the Mishnah’s basic assumptions. It asks questions like: Where do we know this from? Don’t we find another source that contradicts this? What is the reason behind this? How would this apply to another situation not yet addressed? Why was the statement formulated this way and not another?
In our lives, the mishnayos are the seemingly simple and straightforward assumptions that color our perspectives and interpretations of the world. As individuals, we’ve all inherited values, expectations, and assumptions from the various systems we live in. Our families (sometimes multiple families), communities, socioeconomic status, political groups, race and ethnicity, religion, religious sub-sect, gender, and nationality all create unconscious ways of perceiving and living in the world.
Comes the Gemara and teaches us to question our mishnayos. In our lives, the Gemara’s questions might sound like this: What are the values I’ve inherited from my community or family? How do they intersect with each other and/or the values I hold as an individual? What assumptions do I make about myself or others based on economic status, gender, politics, style of dress, profession, or race? Some of the assumption are easily identified and questioned, but others require real digging and unearthing.
And what does Gemara have to say about answering these questions? Essentially, that answers are not easily found. And maybe that they’re overrated. The Gemara’s investigations rarely conclude with clear cut answers and the discussions often spend more time on the “wrong” answers than the “right” ones. So while Gemara teaches us to become conscious thinkers, it also teaches us to be cautious about over-valuing the intellectual endeavor and expecting it to result in certainty. Gemara teaches us that the real “answer” is the experience of living consciously.
Gemara learning is very difficult, and so is conscious living. This is not a quick-fix, self-help sort of secret to success and happiness. (After all, it takes seven-and-a-half years to finish just one cycle, and that’s only if you go fast enough to cover an entire page every day). The Gemara’s style of conscious living can sometimes create more challenges than it solves. And yet, it is this awakening to intentionality and thoughtfulness that creates the space for a deeper and more fulfilling life. There’s a cliché story of a student who told his Rebbe that he went through Shas, to which the Rebbe responded, “that’s very nice, but did Shas go through you?” To me, the answer to this question is gauged by the amount of consciousness Gemara learning brings into your life. It takes great effort to learn the daf every day, and another level of effort to incorporate your day as a daf.