A few weeks ago, Dirshu’s Kinyan Torah/Chazaras HaShas program celebrated the completion of Seder Nashim, along with the rest of the lomdei haDaf world over.
Dirshu is not limited to any one group or sect of people. It includes Litvaks and Chassidim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The participants are employed in various sectors of society: along with many kollel yungeleit and rebbeim, we find businessmen, professionals, and askanim, as well as physicians, such as Dr. Shmuel Goldstein, an electrophysiologist in Cleveland, Ohio, who, in spite of his grueling schedule, finds the necessary hours to learn the Daf and take the Dirshu bechinos.
Indeed, all of the participants of this program, the heroes of Dirshu, have elevated their level of limud haTorah and by doing so have helped change the world.
Reb Avrohom Dovid Weisz of Monsey, New York, is a courageous individual who has faced the challenges of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement) for the past 12 years. Recently, his wife, Ruchie, spoke before a group of doctors and experts in the field of ALS. They were astounded at how her husband not only continues living, but is very much alive, upbeat, positive and willing to take on seemingly insurmountable challenges.
She said to them, “People ask me how my husband has been able to survive for the last 12 years with this dreaded illness. The normal lifespan of such individuals is three, five or, if one is fortunate, perhaps seven years. How is it that my husband has managed to stay alive all these years? It is in part because these doctors, lawyers, accountants and others who have been stricken are robbed of their abilities and see no purpose in living, and so they become depressed and lose the urge to fight.
“But my husband has his learning, and his commitment to Dirshu doesn’t allow him to quit. He feels purpose and drive in every moment of his life. He has what to look forward to every single day. This is what keeps him going.”
As Mrs. Weisz told Rabbi Ahron Gobioff, Dirshu’s director of operations in North America, “When people ask me what keeps my husband alive, I tell them, ‘It is 25 percent respirator and the other 75 percent is Dirshu.’”
But one need not be faced with the daunting challenges that Reb Avrohom Dovid faces, to find meaning through Dirshu’s Kinyan Hashas program. Ask any one of the many, many hundreds taking the monthly exams how the program has changed their lives.
First, all participants concur that the responsibility and commitment required in the preparation of these tests completely consume them. Though everyone gets days off from work, when it comes to Dirshu’s Kinyan Hashas, there are no off days. One can never miss a day, lest he fall behind and consequently be unable to take the bechinah. And as the date for each test nears, the entire family becomes more and more aware as Totty/Abba/Daddy prepares.
The shibud is great, the burden is heavy. There are sacrifices to be made and, sometimes, it is not just a personal sacrifice but there are familial ones, as well. A Dirshu participant’s life revolves around the Daf and the tests. Sometimes this translates into not going away for vacation or an extended Shabbos, unless there is a Dirshu testing site in the area—and there are hundreds.
But that’s the price one pays for inspiring a family, where a test becomes a rallying point, and the pride of achievement unifies the entire family—from the youngest child all the way up to the grandparents. Many of the Dirshu lomdim’s families have their own seudah after the test to celebrate their father’s and husband’s great achievements.
After discussing the challenges involved, all the participants agree that any earthly pleasure pales in comparison to the mesikus haTorah and sippuk hanefesh of working toward the bechinah and mastering the blatt, and none of these individuals or families would ever give it up for anything.
Yes, there is nothing like it. Reb Shaya Brauner, a Dirshu participant and successful businessman from Brooklyn, New York, shared, “The feeling you have after a bechinah is better than making a million dollars. And I know. Because I’ve made a million dollars. The million dollars can be lost, but the blatt you’ve learned and the feeling that comes with it is something that is yours forever. No one can take it away from you.”
One may think that with such pressure, and with so much responsibility, participation in the program can become overwhelming. When Reb Menachem Berkowitz, COO of Chemed Health Center in Lakewood, New Jersey, was asked if he ever felt like quitting, he responded with candor: “Yes. Every month! The monthly grind, an overwhelming work week, early-morning and late-night chavrusos, and a family, make for quite a busy schedule. There is no quit, though.”
For the participants, it is often as if they are running a marathon and the end seems very far off. They feel as though they are going to collapse from exhaustion. But the euphoria and jubilation when they reach the finish line and take that test is indescribable.
Many men take cumulative tests, where they take a test not only on the 30 blatt they learned that month, but three times a year there is an additional test to review the past four months’ 120 blatt. Then there are those who take tests on everything they’ve learned since Daf Beis in Berachos! Who can begin to fathom the incredible feeling of accomplishment that these talmidei chachamim enjoy?
Rabbi Pesach Skulnick, rebbi in Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, New Jersey, has taken a bechinah on the entire Shas, and is now halfway through Shas with Tosafos. In his words: “If you have ever exercised early in the morning, you know how it changes your entire day. You daven and learn differently because you feel so invigorated. When you learn Dirshu, it’s an incredible feeling. People ask me how I am able to juggle it with my other responsibilities of teaching and family obligations. The truth is I can’t imagine living without it.”
One fellow was scheduled to take a test on the day of his son’s bar mitzvah. He hired a caterer and that was the end of it; he was not involved in any of the other preparations. He had more important things to take care of.
Part of the reason that those in the Kinyan Hashas program are so committed and take the tests seriously is because the Dirshu leaders take themselves seriously. As they balance professionalism with care and sensitivity to personal situations, the Dirshu family—yes, family—exudes a sense of camaraderie and unity. People feel committed to the program and sense that they belong to something. It is as if they don’t want to let anyone else down. The Gemara becomes their stalwart companion and they are afraid to leave it behind.
A Test With a Test
Reb Avrohom Dovid Weisz has never thought of giving up. He only became a participant in the Dirshu Kinyan Hashas program after he was diagnosed with ALS. When he sent in his request to receive the tests through email, the people in the Dirshu headquarters did not know what to make of it. Who was this person?
Soon they discovered just who Reb Avrohom Dovid is. Nowadays, he is completely paralyzed and has movement only in his eyes. He is only capable of writing by looking at the letters of the keyboard on his computer. In an ordinary month, the bechinah of 22 questions takes him somewhere between 14 and 18 hours to complete, and Reb Avrohom always makes sure to allot the necessary time to finish the tests in a timely fashion.
One time, though, after he had already spent 14 hours on the test, and he had only two questions left, he had to stop to go to an appointment in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He conveyed to his wife that he wanted to bring along the computer, so that he could finish those questions while waiting for his examination in the hospital and while he was traveling.
On the way back from his appointment, the unthinkable happened. The vehicle hit a pothole, the computer went flying, and it was completely destroyed. Nothing was retrievable.
Reb Avrohom Dovid’s wife was petrified, as were the nurses who accompanied him. All the answers were lost and now, with less than 12 hours remaining until the test was due, there seemed to be no way he could finish.
But there was one person who wasn’t worried at all. Reb Avrohom Dovid.
He very calmly shared that there was nothing to worry about. The night was yet young. At 6 he started again from the beginning of the bechinah. During the next 11 hours, he patiently answered every single question for the second time. At 5 a.m., he finished the bechinah and emailed it to headquarters—before the deadline.
For those who have never tried to master Shas, it is impossible to even fathom how one can accomplish such things. But for those who do it, month after month, it is unconscionable to think of life without it.
‘I Will Do!’
Rabbi Skulnick said that the mantra of Dirshu can best be described through the following story:
In 1939, after returning to Europe from a fundraising mission to America, Rav Elchonon Wasserman told his talmidim that he had learned two words in America: “I’ll try.”
When they asked him what those words mean, Rav Elchonon responded wryly, “Nothing.”
Then he explained, “When I asked someone for money and he said, ‘I’ll try,’ it meant nothing. One needs to say, ‘I will do,’ not ‘I will try.’”
Those Who Do
The numbers are staggering:
8,000,000 blatt of Gemara.
Two hundred participants who have taken cumulative bechinos on the entire Shas, a number which is on pace to double by the end of this machzor.
Maybe it is time for more of us to stop being afraid and to join the revolution, so that we, too, can taste the sweetness of Dirshu.
By Rabbi Yechiel Spero