When Rabbi Meir Shapiro suggested the practice of the Daf Yomi, studying a page of Talmud daily, at an Agudah conference in 1923, he could never have imagined how many thousands of people take part in this seven and a half year project. Rabbi Shapiro believed it would unite Jews globally in a mission to strengthen and unify the Jewish community. A “Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the Beis Medrash [study hall], where he finds everyone learning the same daf [page] that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”
More people can access the Talmud than ever before thanks to Rabbi Shapiro. Yet for me, deciding to take part in the Daf Yomi was less about community than about a daily discipline around a strong personal value. I make no claims to remember what I’ve learned. In fact, a friend said it best. Daf yomi: forgetting one page of Talmud a day.
Why continue? If for no other reason, daily study has become a habit. I am not sure how long it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Today, we know a lot more than we ever did about habits. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, contends that, “If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real.” Old bad habits can die. New habits can grow.
In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey explored how routines shaped the work of artists and writers. In putting the book together, he learned about the impact of everyday creativity, often spurred on by doing the same thing again and again. “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.”
Daily discipline is hard initially, but over time, routines have a way of affirming the values that we believe in every day. Some people study every day. Some people exercise every day, getting in those 10,000 steps. Some people watch what they eat every day. Some people speak to those they love every day. I read a poem every day from Daniel Ladinsky’s book, A Year with Hafiz.
This kind of automatic pilot often frees the mind to do the heavy lifting. The anchor experiences that frame time are often ritualized to create this sense of liberation. But routines often create ruts. They can make us stale unless we shake things up every once in a while.
I think often of the words of my friend Blu Greenberg in How to Run a Traditional Household and the tender way she helps us forgive ourselves when we get it wrong:
“But how, the reader might ask, can one perform ritual without perfect and pure intent? Is it not a sham? The answer might be, ‘Once more, with feeling.’ Even so, should ritual or rite happen to be devoid of inner spirit at any given moment, it does not mean that it is devoid of meaning. Sometimes, in ritual, we simply feel part of the community, and that is enough. Sometimes, ritual serves to generate a sense of self, and that is enough. Sometimes it strengthens the family unit, and that is enough. And sometimes, it connects us to the Divine, and that is enough.”
This was my thinking when I put together a book of daily meditations followed by a challenge. Everyone I know is busier than busy. Everyone I know would like to have more time to read, reflect and grow. But it has to come in bite-size increments that add up to personal transformation. We are humans. We need to remind ourselves of our values and priorities constantly, even on the days when it rains. If we fall out of a habit, we can always take a deep breath and get back on the path.
This is one of the reasons I love Chanukah. When you have a holiday that’s eight days long, and you’re not feeling it on day Number 2, there are another six nights to redeem the one that got away. And with each night, we add light, strengthening the impact of the menora’s message and power: Notice miracles. Praise. Be grateful. Value peace in the home. Be the light.
That’s an inside job. Every day when we see the light, we can remember the words of Isaiah about being a light to others by taking people out of darkness. We can’t do that in one day, but over time, we can make someone else’s life and our own better. Chanukah is a great time to adopt a daily discipline that you had your heart set on but haven’t done yet. And if you miss a day, it’s OK. There’s always tomorrow.