Gil Tal Obligates All of Us
"Hillel will obligate the poor [to learn Torah]; Rabbi Elazar ben Charsum obligates the rich; and Yosef the evil ones" (Yoma 35b). After Rabbi Elazar ben Charsum, whose father left him one thousand cities and one thousand ships at sea, and nevertheless sat and learned day and night, no one will be able to say that they were so occupied managing their property that they had no time to learn. And after Hillel, no one will be able to say they were too poor to learn. And after Yosef, no one will be able to say they were too beautiful to resist all the blandishments placed before him.
Gil Tal, profiled in a recent issue of HaModia's Inyan Magazine by Rhona Lewis, will obligate all the rest of us. Tal lives on a non-religious moshav near Nahariya, apparently never learned in a yeshiva at any level, and has a job as a manager in a high-tech company in Yokneam, which keeps him away from home eleven hours a day. Yet within less than five years of picking up masechta Berachos, he has finished Shas with the ArtScroll Schottenstein Gemara.
Tal relates that prior to a recent visit to New York with his wife he was very excited by the prospect of meeting many Jews who have learned all their lives and must surely have completed Shas many times. While many such Jews surely exist, Tal did not meet any. He was puzzled. "When a man comes to the Next World, he won't be able to learn the material he hasn't learned here," he notes. Why doesn't anticipation of the pain of not being able to learn all of Talmud with "Tannaim and kedoshim" move Jews to undertake completing Shas, he wonders. And in a more practical vein, he quotes the Chazon Ish to the effect that one who has not learned tractateShabbos will inevitably be mechalel Shabbos.
What can those of us who had the privilege of sitting many years in kollel, who do not work more than eleven hours a day, and who live in environments where the importance of Torah learning is emphasized at every turn, and yet have not finished Shas, and perhaps not half of Shas (who remembers?), answer Gil Tal?
Now, I don't ask that question merely to make us (read "me") ashamed, though I do mean to do that as well. But rather to see what we can learn from Tal about setting goals and, more important, reaching them. Though Tal is a graduate of the Technion -- Israel's MIT – he insists he was only an average student, "which is fine because the Torah was not made only for brilliant people."
What he does possess is an engineer's ability to set goals and figure out what must be down to reach them. Most of us (same caveat as above) think we set goals all the time, starting on Rosh Hashanah. Those goals even provide a brief moment of self-satisfaction with our ambition. But because we often view them as "extra credit," we don't really figure out in advance what they entail, and have often fallen behind, or even forgotten them, by Tzom Gedalya.
Gal realized that to keep to the schedule he set out for himself – which also includes daily learning of Chumash with Ramban, Tehillim with Rashi and Malbim, and shemiras haloshen – he would have to give up everything in his life besides work, time with his family, and learning. And that included a bit of sleep as well. He minimizes the last sacrifice: "I was often tired before."
It also means learning every single day with no exceptions. No matter how tired he is or how late he returns home, he never goes to sleep without learning. And it means making every minute count. He carries photocopies of what he is currently learning with him just in case a few minutes of free time materialize.
AS MY FRIEND DONIEL FRANK recently pointed out in these pages, setting goals and developing the tools to reach them is not something at which many of our young excel today, and in that respect, at least, they are frequently emulating their parents. But the same tools that Gil Tal developed as an engineer were highly prized and greatly emphasized by the Mussar movement.
A visitor to the Talmud Torah of Kelm once entered during the middle of a shmuess by the Alter. So mournful was the Alter's tone that the visitor assumed he had come in the middle of a hesped. The actual subject, however, turned out to be a pair of galoshes left in the coat room imperfectly aligned.
The first time I read that story in Tenuas HaMussar a bemused smile crossed on my face. Photographs in college alumni magazines of famous professors in offices piled high and deep in papers and books in every direction, looking like a cyclone had preceded the photographer, were more to my liking. All I lacked to be like the professors was a sufficiently picturesque old desk; the disarray was already well in place.
But the older I get the more I appreciate the Alter's wisdom. Nothing is more determinative of a productive life than order, the ability to plan one's time, and the discipline to follow through consistently. If those professors contributed anything of significance to mankind, my guess is that it was despite being balaganistim, not because of it.
And nothing is more determinative of our happiness than our ability to produce – and in the category of production I include at the top of the list every word of Torah learned -- and meet goals we set for ourselves. The more productive we are the more we become aware that our presence in the world makes a difference and that we were created for a particular mission. That is why I'm convinced that modern connectivity has reduced, not increased, human happiness by encouraging so much waste of time.
There is one more crucial lesson to learn directly from Gil Tal. He has produced a four-hour seminar on work ethics for his company Marvell Technology Group based on Pirkei Avos, Rav Dessler, and the principles of shemiras halashon. He couples the Torah material he teaches with the results of a major three-generational study of highly successful companies, which found that the so-called Fifth Level of Leadership requires managers who combine genuine personal humility with intense professional will. The Torah sources illustrate how one acquires those qualities of humilty and determination.
How many of us, who have doubtless been learning Pirkei Avos and Michtav M'Eliyahu or Mesilas Yesharim longer than Gil Tal, have ever thought about ways to share the Torah's wisdom on middos with our fellow Jews whether in the workplace or another format? If we loved Torah enough, would we not burn with the desire to share it? But, of course, if we really loved Torah like that, we would already have resolved to learn it all so we too can join the learning in Olam Haba.
Je Suis Juif
Here's a piece of rare double good news from Gaza. First, the Egyptian army is in the process of razing Rafah, the Egyptian border town,that borders Gaza, in order to create a security zone around the Gaza Strip. The Egyptians seek to prevent the smuggling of arms and terrorists between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, where a number of deadly attacks have recently been launched at the Egyptian military. Over two thousand families have been displaced by the Egyptian action, though Egypt has promised to rebuild shelter for them elsewhere.
The second piece of good news is that few readers have likely heard of Rafah's fate. Had Israel conducted the same operation, as has often been proposed and rejected, the hue and cry around the world would have been deafening. But since Egypt is doing the razing no one cares apart from the displaced families. Similarly, Israel is always described as maintaining an embargo on the Gaza Strip, which is both untrue and impossible. Israel controls only one point of entry to Gaza; the Egyptians control the other. And under Gen. Al-Sisi, Egypt has been every bit as zealous about regulating the flow of potential military material into Gaza as Israel.
For once, then, the double standard universally applied to Israel has worked out in Israel's favor. For its own reasons, Egypt shares Israel's interest in cutting off smuggling of arms and material with a military use into Gaza, and can act with impunity.
Elliott Abrams points out that the double standard applied to Jews (not just Israel) was also on display last week in Paris. Along with all the signs, "Je suis Charlie" on display, he would like to have seen a few more signs, "Je suis Juif."
As horrific as the attack on Charlie Hebdo was, it was no more so than the slaying of four Jews (including a father and his two sons) in a Jewish school in Toulouse two years ago. The staff of Charlie Hebdo knew very well that they were courting danger by sticking their fingers deep into the eyes of Muslim fanatics. But the Jewish victims in Toulouse or the four Jews murdered in a kosher supermarket in Paris two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo made no choices. Their only "sin" was to be Jewish.
As Mark Steyn wrote in his 2008 book America Alone, from the start of the new millennia, French Muslims "have been carrying on a low-level intifada against synagogues, kosher butchers and Jewish schools, etc. The concern of the political class has been to prevent the spread of these attacks to targets of more, ah, general interest. They're losing that battle."
Several million Frenchmen were right to march in protest against an attempt by radical French Muslims to prove at gunpoint that the French tradition of free speech, including a healthy dose of anti-clericalism, does not apply to speech that offends them. But, at the same time, no healthy democracy can allow a group of its citizens – in this case the third largest Jewish community in the world – to become sitting ducks in a shooting gallery. That too should have merited a huge protest.