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Thought for the Day: Siyum During Nine Days -- The Tip of the Iceberg of Spiritual Success or Ruin

When I first started learning about Orthodox Judaism, I listened to dozens (nearly 100s) of taped shiurim from Aish HaTorah.  One of my favorite speakers was R' Dovid Gottlieb; he is also a ba'al t'shuva whose journey began as a professor of philosophy and I find his approach really sings to me.  One statement in particular made a deep impression on me: in order to truly understand a deep/abstract philosophical concept, bring it down to reality by applying it to a real situation.  Learning Mishna Brura provides me with oodles of real life situations.  Learning the Gr"a on Mishlei, Da'as T'vunos, Pachad Yitzchak, etc provides one with oodles of deep/abstract philosophical concepts.  Commuting to work by bicycle affords me the time to finding the connections between those two worlds.

The Pachad Yitzchak notes that we humans are comprised of a soul -- which is spriritual and outside of time/space, and a body -- which is physical and deeply rooted inside time/space.  The soul understand eternity, but cannot experience it as reality.  The body understands reality, but cannot experience eternity.  The bridge is imagination.  Imagination allows the soul to use the experiential knowledge of the body to give substance to eternity.  However, like any bridge, imagination works in both directions.  The negative use is to allow the body to give infinity to its experiences; aka, fantasy -- which is responsible for the great success of the dark side of the internet.  The constant work of the Jew is to use the bridge to aid the soul in elevating a person and prevent that bridge from being co-opted by the body to drag the person into the gutter and worse.

People think that finishing a masechta of gemara is a license for eating meat during the nine days.  That's not quite accurate, in fact it is sometimes dead wrong.  The accurate statement is that attending a s'udas mitzvah is a heter for eating meat during the nine days.  Those nine days are a time of intense longing for the re-unification of HaShem with His treasured nation.  That longing can be expressed both by the aveilus of the period, and also by joining together in a s'udas mitzvah.  If one completes a tractate of gemara (or other s'farim according to the Rema as understood by the G"ra OC 551:10) during that period, then the celebration of the accomplishment is a s'udas mitzvah and one may, nay should, eat meat.  That is the soul elevating the body.

However -- and this is a big one -- if one learns a masechta just to be able to eat meat, then the meal is not at all a s'udas mitzvah; quite the opposite -- it is a body dragging the soul down.  Since that Bacchanalian consumption of flesh is not a s'udas mitzvah, ipso facto there is no heter to eat meat.

The polar opposite of that is a story related by R' Chaim Kanievsky told to him by his father, the Steipler Gaon.  During WWI the yeshiva had nothing but meat to eat during the nine days.  In those times of war, surely it was permitted to eat meat just to keep healthy, all the more so given that nothing else was available.  The bochurim, however, were not satisfied with a heter to eat meat or even the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, the yeshiva arranged to make a siyum each day in order to elevate the meals to s'udas mitzvah.

Every situation provides opportunities for spiritual elevation and the opposite.  The greater the opportunity for k'dusha, the greater the opportunity for the opposite.  That's not just philosophy, that daily living.

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