“Wealth gotten through vanity shall be diminished; but he that gathers little by little shall increase.”
Today’s Daf Yomi portion is an exuberant celebration of learning. It brings me back to my days in college when I would sit on the floor of the library in the literature section and pull book after book off the shelf in total euphoria from the discovery of the great American poets. It is also a reminder of the humility that comes from scholarship and learning. Making my way through this Daf Yomi cycle has required great humility because the text is not structured like anything I have ever studied before. I am reminded each day that I know almost nothing and must turn over my ego as I enter each page.
Today’s Daf Yomi text starts with the words of a wise Jewish woman, Beruya, the wife of Rabbi Meir, who appears as strident and self-assured as Yalta back in the Berakhot Tractate, which seems like a lifetime ago. It is worth mentioning when the Talmud introduces us to a strong woman, because there are so few that are given a voice in its pages. Berurya comes across Rabbi Yosei HaGelili during her travels who asks for directions to Lod, which is a city in central Israel. The Rabbi expresses his request in a rather indirect way by inquiring “which path shall we walk in order to get to Lod.” Beruya corrects him and says he should have directly and simply asked “which way to Lod.” In other words, she said to the learned Rabbi, “silly man, why put on airs when you should just admit that you are lost.”
Berurya is a woman who expresses herself freely and directly, as demonstrated when she kicked a student who was quietly studying and told him to put more energy into it and inhabit his study with his entire body. Her approach to physical scholarship is supported by Rabbi Eliezer who had a student who studied so quietly and devoid of energy that he forgot his studies after three years. The Rabbi and Berurya advocate for a style of learning that is an active pursuit requiring one’s entire lifeforce for it to be enduring.
Shmuel is quoted as saying that one should verbalize his scholarship out loud: “open your mouth and read from the Torah, open your mouth and study the Talmud, in order that your studies should endure in you.” He makes a case for a scholar to live a full and robust life rather than sheltering alone in a dark place. He tells his beloved student Rav Yehuda to partake in food and drink because “one who does not take pleasure in it now will not be able to do so in the future.” It is a plan for living a full life through scholarship rather than withdrawing into an isolated existence.
We are told that scholarship is a cure for almost any ailment. It one has a crippling headache, study shall function “as a graceful wreath for your head.” If one has a sore throat, study shall be like “chains around your neck” and for a pain in the intestines, it shall serve as “health to your navel.” A pain deep in one’s bones can be cured through study which is like “marrow to your bones” and all-over body aches are benefited through study as “health to all their flesh.” We are told that unlike a drug that will treat an ailment isolated to one part of the body, study is “a drug for one’s entire body.”
At the same time, while study should be a full-body experience, we are warned that one must not become arrogant as he acquires knowledge. And learning does not happen all at once but takes hard work and humility. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba quotes Rabbi Yoḥanan who repeated a proverb: “He who guards the fig tree shall eat its fruit.” We are told just as figs that are plucked from a tree ripen slowly over time, one who meditates upon the learnings of the Torah, finds new meaning each time he revisits the text.
Galway Kinnell, who I was very privileged to study with many years ago, believed that a poet should embody his words completely. He selected a student at the start of each class to recite a poem from memory not unlike the Talmudic oral tradition. Galway believed that poetry could only be experienced through recitation and memorization. Who would have thought that there could be a connection between the Irish American poet, Galway Kinnell, and the Talmudic sage, Shmuel?
This journey that I started in January just before the pandemic stuck New York City is leading me to places I never imagined. It’s a slow journey though the text of the Talmud, but I believe I am gaining a new perspective on life, little by little.