Learning even a page of Talmud is tough. Learning a whole volume is cause for celebration. At the siyum (completion) of a tractate of the Talmud, it is customary to recite a prayer of thanksgiving and for all in attendance to eat a festive meal.
There is a widespread custom on the eve of Pesach for firstborn males to fast as a remembrance of the miracle which spared the firstborn sons from the final plague in Egypt that struck all firstborns. This fast is treated leniently and most shuls arrange a siyum after the morning service. The firstborn sons join in this siyum and light meal, and having broken the fast, may continue to eat the rest of the day.
Last year, I made a siyum on the tractate Baba Metzia at my shul, Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair. Later that morning, our first born son, Yisrael Tzvi, made a siyum on the tractate Shabbos at the Chicago Community Kollel.
The prayer we each said is a beautiful prayer. It begins with the words: “We shall return to you, Tractate (in my case) Baba Metzia, and you shall return to us,” signifying our constant striving to review our learning. The prayer includes the following: “Please, Hashem, our G-d, sweeten the words of your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of your people,” a touching request to enjoy our learning. Then the prayer expresses gratitude to G-d for “establishing our portion with those who dwell in the study hall, and have not established our portions who are idle with their time.”
The prayer continues to contrast the difference between those who toil in their learning of Torah, and those who spend their time on unimportant things. “We run… and they run…”
I thought about these words as I was rushing to make final preparations for the seder that night.
It turns out that the first night of the seder last year was the same night as the first home game for the Chicago Cubs, celebrating their World Championship. I knew there were unfortunately, probably going to be a number of Jews at Wrigley Field instead of around their family table celebrating Pesach. Indeed I saw a story of one such family on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, entitled “This year my Passover Seder will be at Wrigley Field.” In the article, the author, a life-long Cubs fan writes
“But this year, I learned, will be different from all other years. Why? Because this year, the first night of Passover (Monday, April 10) happens to fall on opening night at Wrigley Field — where, for the first time in 108 years, the Chicago Cubs will play on their home turf as World Series champions.
So instead of hard-boiling massive amounts of eggs and hiding the afikomen in the piano bench, my parents and I will be making the trek to the Friendly Confines for a different kind of spring festival — one that may not be religious in the traditional sense, but just as significant to my family’s spirituality and identity.
….And so, when we realized the Cubs-Passover scheduling conflict this year, my parents and I didn’t think twice about “doing the right thing.” For us, the choice was clear.
“It’s been a lifetime of waiting for a World Series championship, and we might not win again for another lifetime,” my mom explained, assuring me she’ll bring a baggie of matzah and a Haggadah to read between innings.”
As you know, I was a determined rugby player in my youth, and my late father in law loved baseball. I know how beloved the Cubs are to so many Jews. So I’m not being judgmental. I’ll let you be the judge. Your feelings about the story will be a good indication of what your life’s priorities are.
An important theme in the Pesach Haggadah is gratitude. One overwhelming feeling I had reading the JTA story was one of gratitude. It reminded me of a seminal incident in my life. I had recently started learning at yeshiva in Jerusalem. At the same time I had made contact with some Israeli rugby players I had met when I played in the Maccabi Games a few years earlier. I was asked to help coach the Jerusalem rugby team. Only thing was that they practiced late Friday afternoon. I knew this venture of mine would not last long. The final time I coached, I went to the rugby field in Givat Ram dressed in my Shabbat clothes. As the sun started to set, I turned to leave so I could make it to my host’s family in Bayit Vegan before candle lighting time. One of the players came up to me and said, “Zev, why don’t you stay? This is the real life. This is the real Shabbat. Not the Shabbat you are going to celebrate.” I knew there was no point in getting into a discussion with that kind of logic.
However, as I walked away, I suddenly realized that, if not for a series of providential events, inspiring mentors and critical decisions I had made in my life, I could have been the one in the rugby jersey trying to convince another yeshiva student to stay.
That incident humbles me, fills me with gratitude and reminds me of the priorities I’ve set in my life.