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Thought for the Day: Gemara, Halacha, Mussar

R' Dovid Siegel, shlita, once asked me if I really understood what the experience of olam haba is.  Not what it will feel like, just what it is.  (We always have light conversations like that.)  Having been learning for years by that point and feeling confident, I replied, "A person experiences himself, the being he built during his life in this world."  At that point R' Seigel started talking to himself, "I see where he got that idea, M'silas Y'sharim, Derech HaShem.  Maybe it's just the way he's expressing himself?  No; we are in beis medrash, that is certainly what he thinks."  I was wondering what mistake I had made and waiting for the rebbi to enlighten me.  He did.  "Not yourself; that would be intensely and profoundly lonely.  The experience of olam haba is feeling and enjoying the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu!"  I could have argued and said that's what I really meant, but what would be the point.  He was right; I had things quite wrong.  Baruch HaShem for the mid-course correction.

So how do you get there?  How do you turn yourself from an olam haze being into an olam haba being?  One answer: live the mitzvos.  Not do the mitzvos, live the mitzvos.   To do that you need halacha to know what to do and mussar to keep reminding yourself how important this all is and the dangers of shirking your obligations.  Then there's gemara.  Let's take a look.

Open up to the first page of the gemara, "From when can you say the evening sh'ma?".  Reasonable question.  The answer ought to be equally reasonable and straightforward; right?  What ensues, however, is something about the kohanim eating t'ruma (wait, who said anything about t'ruma?  And what is t'ruma, anyway?) and the watch of the angels.  Then we have a story about getting back late from a wedding. (Is Rabban Gamliel always up past midnight and ready to launch into a halacha/mussar shi'ur?)  Then we have burning of fats and guts, something about when you can eat korbanos,  What's going on here?  Fortunately, the gemara asks exactly that question, "Who said there is even an obligation to say k'ri'as sh'ma, let alone when to say it?"  Now we're getting somewhere.  "And, besides," says the gemara, "why start with the night time k'ri'as sh'ma?  Why didn't we start with the morning?"  Answer: when describing the creation of the world, HaShem put evening before morning, as in: "There was evening and there was morning; day one."  Wow... that certainly clears things up.

What's going on is that our minds are set solidly in olam haze mode.  Halacha and mussar can mold us, but only if we are malleable.  Gemara takes are stiff minds and shakes things up.  There is no way to learn through even a line or two of gemara without coming out dazed.  So the gemara loosens us up, the halacha brings us into line, and mussar keeps us going.  Go team!

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