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My personal bond to the Erev pesach siyum

By Rabbi Brahm Weinberg

Each and every year I look forward to making the siyum on Erev Pesach. It is a doubly special occasion for me: First, finishing any amount of Torah learning leads me to a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. The effort, the time, and the exposure to Torah ideas leave me feeling uplifted and encouraged to continue with more learning. Second, the siyum on Erev Pesach holds important personal memories for me that I would like to share with you.

When I was a child, my paternal grandfather, David Weinberg z”l, would take my dad, my uncle, my cousins, and me to shul on Erev Pesach to daven, listen to the siyum, and have breakfast together. This was not something we usually did together, and it turned into extraordinary time for us to bond over something of meaning. The opportunity to do so in an intergenerational way made the experience the perfect preamble to the Pesach seder that night, whose entire goal is to bring generations of Jews together to bond over our collective past and rich future. 

Many years later, now as an adult and, as a rabbi in my first year in the pulpit, I was preparing to make the siyum on Erev Pesach of 2010 as my 97-year-old maternal grandfather, Joseph Steinberg z”l, was ailing and nearing the end of his life. I made the siyum that morning in memory of my paternal grandfather who initiated me into the ritual of the siyum and also in the zechut (merit) of my ailing maternal grandfather who influenced my life in countless ways. Later that day, just a couple of hours before the seder, my maternal grandfather Joseph z”l, passed away making Erev Pesach not only the day of the siyum, but also his yahrzeit

The following year, 2011, I made the siyum on Erev Pesach in memory of both my grandfathers.

One year later, in 2012, I had tears in my eyes when Elana brought our 6 month-old baby Joseph to the siyum I made in shul. At that moment I felt like I was able to close the loop on the circle of life by bringing my own bechor, Joseph, to the same siyum that my father and grandfather had brought me to as a child on the very day of the yahrzeit of my grandfather for whom Joseph was named. That year, it was a siyum, a completion, in every sense of the word: A siyum of a tractate of gemara, and a siyum of a circle of generations in my family having the same experience. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have seen that come to fruition in my lifetime. I relive that sense of awe and gratitude and also that sense of completion each year at the siyum on Erev Pesach.

This year I am making a siyum on Masechet Taanit. It is a fascinating masechet dealing primarily with the laws of fast days declared in ancient times as a prayerful response to drought or other kind of crisis. Taanit contains many wonderful midrashim that teach critical lessons for us as Jews and human beings. It also contains so many lessons that resonate with me and connect to various parts of my life and even to my experiences of making the siyum on Erev Pesach. The masechet ends with the image of a circle:

אמר עולא ביראה אמר רבי אלעזר: עתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא לעשות מחול לצדיקים, והוא יושב ביניהם בגן עדן, וכל אחד ואחד מראה באצבעו, שנאמר "ואמר ביום ההוא הנה אלהינו זה קוינו לו ויושיענו זה ה' קוינו לו נגילה ונשמחה בישועתו". 
"Ulla Bira'ah said in the name of R. Eleazar: In the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will make a circle for the righteous and He will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point with his finger towards Him, as it is said, And it shall be said in that day: Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.

From Hashem’s perspective, from the perspective of “the days to come,” life is very much like a circle. Humans in this world move through the repetitive historical cycles of ending and starting all over again, circles of generation that traveled along those same circles long before us. From our human this-world perspective, we don’t always see circles. We sometimes feel we live on straight lines headed in unknown directions that have yet to be charted. That experience can be agonizingly difficult or, at other times, phenomenally exciting. The siyum and, actually, all of Pesach, is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the heavenly perspective on life, the perspective of the circle. It is a moment when we comprehend that whether we see the circles or not, life is filled with siyumim, with circles that end and start again, circles that have been well trodden and circles that, if we are fortunate, have Hashem at the center in a deep relationship where we can point to Him as if He is there in the room with us and say: Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us.

I hope that the learning we do this year will not only help the firstborn children to avoid fasting, but will also be a zechut for the neshamot of my grandparents and be a zechut for, yibadlu lechayim, my children, so that we may all grow in learning and in closeness with Hashem. 

During the “hadran” that we say after a siyum, we pray that as we close one section of learning others will open before us to keep us engaged in the Torah that was given to us by Hashem. I hope that should be true for all of us and that it should be an appropriate jumping point in to a healthy, happy, and meaningful holiday of Pesach for all of us.

הדרן עלך בשלשה פרקים וסליקא לה מסכת תענית

Chag sameach!

- Rabbi Weinberg

P.S. -  Join us for the siyum followed by breakfast on Erev Pesach this coming Friday, March 30 at 6:30 am.

Tue, September 22 2020 4 Tishrei 5781