It didn’t take long at all – mere minutes, in fact – for the Jewish spirit to proclaim its indomitability amid the carnage in Monsey, N.Y., on the eve of Dec. 29, the second-to-last day of Hanukkah. Five Jews had just been stabbed during a holiday celebration, one incident amid an ongoing flurry of violent anti-Semitism in New York’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods. One of the victims, Josef Neumann, remains in critical condition with diminishing hopes that he will ever regain consciousness, let alone walk or talk.
But as his alleged attacker, Grafton Thomas, sped away, the attendees regrouped in a synagogue next door to continue the Hanukkah gathering. “The grace of God did not end,” they sang in Hebrew, “and His mercy did not leave us.”
Three days later, and just a short drive away, the ultra-Orthodox community put on an even more spectacular display of resiliency, packing over 90,000 people into New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium for the siyum ha-Shas, marking the completion of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of daily Talmud study known as daf yomi. The stadium, like so many other large venues throughout the world where similar celebrations have been held in recent days (including here in Canada), was filled with the traditional black garb of ultra-Orthodox men (save for a small, but noticeably increased contingent of women, as compared to the last siyum ha-Shas in August 2012, and one clever attendee who turned the affair into a living, breathing game of Where’s Waldo?).
“Hadran alach, Talmud Bavli, v’hadrach alan,” they sang, addressing the Babylonian Talmud – all 2,711 double-sided pages of it – directly: “We will return to you, and you will return to us.” That phrase, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the late rosh yeshivah of the Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem, once declared, contains “the most beautiful words that a Jew can say.”
Echoing among the masses, the time-honoured lyrics were as much a political statement as anything, a paean to Jewish unity and common purpose. That is, after all, the entire point of the daf yomi project.
“What an incredible thing,” Rabbi Meir Shapiro declared, promoting the concept to the First World Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna in August 1923. “A Jew travels by boat and takes (Tractate) Brachot under his arm. He travels for 15 days from the Land of Israel to America, and each day he learns the daily page. When he arrives in America, he enters a place of worship in New York and finds Jews learning the same page that he studied that day, and he gladly joins them.… Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”
Daf yomi might not be your cup of tea, but it’s hard to argue with its message of unity, especially now amid rising anti-Semitism around the world, soaring tensions in the Middle East and divisiveness in our own community. The salient point is that every Jew is called to duty, to do whatever we can to support our communities. We are all responsible for one another. That never changes.
Sixty years ago, M.J. Nurenberger, the first editor of The Canadian Jewish News, summed up the task at hand in the paper’s inaugural edition, dated Jan. 1, 1960: “The Canadian Jewish News will fight the battle of the organized Jewish people on all fronts. That is a solemn pledge. It will fight in the Maccabean spirit – expressing the Jewish refusal to surrender. In this historic effort to secure Jewish existence – politically in Israel, spiritually throughout the world – we need Jewish unity, a disciplined, organized Jewish community. We shall do our share to strengthen it.”
Those words are as true today as ever.