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.
The Advantages of Being the Minority
Last week I wrote about Gil Tal, who completed at least one journey through Shas, while living on Ben Ami, a secular Moshav near Nahariya. My focus was what we can all learn from Tal’s determination.
But there is another lesson as well. Though the Ben Ami defines itself as secular, and that remains the dominate ambience among the old-timers, for the past eight years Rabbi Yehudah Golombeck and his family have lived on the moshav. It was Rabbi Golombock who guided Gil Tal’s learning and who insisted that he must also learn Talmud, along with all the other learning sedarim he had already established.
Rabbi Golombeck is just one example of young rabbinic families placed on secular moshavim and kibbutzim by Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan’s Ayelet HaShachar organization. Today, Ayelet HaShachar sponsors families on over forty yishuvim (down from over 80 due to financial constraints) and each of those families has had a positive impact of dozens of families.
When Rabbi Golombeck first arrived at Ben Ami, the moshav’s shul had been closed for twenty years, and there were not even services on Yom Kippur. Every Shabbos, Rabbi Golombeck had to walk several kilometers to Nahariya for a minyan.
Within six months, however, he had opened a Shabbos minyan in an old clubhouse. Today, a beautiful shul has been built. And if Rabbi Golombeck oversleeps the 6:00 a.m. Shachris minyan, he can count on a call from one of the members summoning him. Every night, Rabbi Golombeck learns with members of the moshav in the shul, and he gives multiple shiurim on Shabbos and one evening during the week. A couple of times a month, outside lecturers come to Ben Ami.
One of the keys to the Golembock’s success, I would suggest, is that as the only religious family on the yishuv they represent no threat to the secular residents. The residents need not worry that the Golombecks and their four children represent the beachhead of a chareidi invasion. With that threat removed, secular residents are more than ready to learn Torah with them.
If I am right, the greatest kiruv potential might well exist in cities and neighborhoods where the chareidi population is a small minority. It is a hypothesis that will be tested in coming years, as chareidim move out of their own strongholds and the newer chareidi cities can no longer deal with the demand for apartments for new couples. Cities like Afula, Carmiel, Nazereth Ilit, and Tiberias are a crucial component of any future housing solutions for the chareidi community.
A few years back, Rabbi Ra’anan had the idea of putting talmidei chachamim in secular neighborhoods around the country. He advertised in the chareidi press, and received 170 responses, including forty from maggidei shiur and roshei kollel, ready to sacrifice the ease of living in a chareidi neighborhood. Unfortunately, the funding never materialized, but I have no question that each such family would have succeeded in breaking down entrenched stereotypes and much more important teaching much Torah.