The occasion was two-fold. A combination of the Bar mitzva of my sister's fourth son and a grand birthday celebration for my father, LOY"T AMV"Sh, upon reaching his 80th birthday a few weeks earlier.
One of the highlights of the celebration was that my father, LOY"T, made a Siyum on all six sets of Mishna at Shalosh Seudos. Now, a bit of background is in order.
My father was born to a very pious (what I will call chareidi) chassidic family in Munkacz, Czechoslovakia in 1929. He had a grade-A cheder education (though he was known to have a mischievous side) and could have become a "geshikta lamdan" (erudite scholar) except for the great war. When the war began in 1939 he was only 10 years old (think 5th grade) and when the Jews of Munkacz were deported in May of 1944, he was not yet 15. Thus, at the time when most of us, even non-chareidim, get our primary advanced level Torah learning experience (high-school age), my father was doing slave labor in Melk-Mauthausen.
Perhaps he even deserves the distinction as "the best bachur in Yeshiva Gedola Melk-Mauthausen".
Still this means to say that he barely had any advanced level Torah education in his formative years. Thus he was missing some of the vital early year learning experience that gives one the skills to study on their own.
After the war came two years of total chaos in various DP camps and he finally arrived in America in 1947. In America, he picked up the pieces in his life, learned English, had a belated high school education, learned buying and selling and started a business, married, and built a solid family. He devoted all of his energies to his business and family. All this time, he never forsook Torah learning but initially it was limited to the Shabbos afternoon blatt shiur at shul. His learning was what he was taught at the shiurim, but he didn't have the time, nor the foundation for self-induced learning during the week.
Later, when a Kollel came to our community, he started a little week night learning with a shiur. On occasion, one of the shiurim he was with finished a particular masechta and the siyum was his siyum as well, but I surmise that there were always a few holes in each case when he had to miss a shiur here or there. So it is possible to say that in all these years, he never really covered a full unit cover to cover.
Well, finally, about 3.5 years ago (at a young 76.5 years old), a neighbor about 20 years younger than him made a personal siyum on Shisha Sidrei Mishna and it was revealed that this is his third such siyum (personally, I am 5 masechtos in Taharos short of my second cycle). My father told himself, "And I haven't done this once! How can this be?"
So for the first time, at 76.5, my father took on a complete self-induced learning project to learn the material - in this case Mishna - from cover to cover. I wasn't aware of any of this (though I was aware that my father has greatly increased his kviyas itim of late and now attends a daf yomi shiur) and when he made the siyum last Shabbos, now, 80 years old, I was totally ecstatic!
Now, of course, a portfolio of thousands of hours of blatt shiurim is nothing to sneeze at. Plus, he provided all his children with the best Torah education available never paying less than full tuition and filtering down to the next generation and he has given fortunes of money toward Torah education so he is certainly not short on zechuyot for learning and supporting Torah. Yet, none of this compares to the value of an individual's self-induced learning.
Because self-induced learning requires "ameilus" b'Torah. And Torah that comes with ameilus is worth so much more than listening to the Rav give a blatt shiur (which is worth plenty).
So this siyum was marking the first time that on his own, my pappa mastered a complete segment of Talmud and it transpired over the past 3.5 years.
And a disquieting thought crossed my mind:
Suppose he hadn't been blessed with the health and well-being that he currently enjoys (AMV"Sh) and had gone the way of the living as so many do in their early or mid seventies - what would he have missed! All of shisha sidrei mishna! Can you imagine the difference between going upstairs after 120 with shisha sidrei mishna in your pocket to going up without it? Even with all the zechuyot from the blatt shiurs, etc.
Every word of Torah that a person learns, every Mishna, every daf, creates malachim that will be there to greet him and protect him from ravages of the malachei chavala that he may have created from his missteps. And those that one learns with "ameilus" are the most powerful of all. And to think that if he would have waited too long to get started, the opportunity for this achievement may have been lost forever.
But the disquieting thought ran much further:
Imagine how many Jewish people there are - non-observant ones for sure, but even many "Orthodox" Jews who keep mitzvos - who live peaceful productive lives 80 years and beyond and finally, at the end of their time, go upstairs with absolutely nothing!
What a waste. What an awful shame!
This thought did not occur to me just last Shabbos. It occurred to me almost 14 years ago when I submitted an essay on the subject to the Jewish Observer for publication (they rejected it!).
The essay was a critique of a brief news item that appeared in my local newspaper. It was about the famous borsht belt comedian, George Burns. George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York in January of 1896. His father was the chazzan in a shul. He married Gracie Allen, an Irish catholic in 1926 and he died in March of 1996 at the age of 100 and 2 months. Although he dropped out of school in 4th grade, nobody will dispute that he was one sharp quick-witted fellow.
The news item appeared in late 1995 and it informed the reader of an upcoming celebration that was being planned for George Burns in January when he will reach his 100th birthday. The article said that George, just shy of 100, is still very active and goes to his office on a daily basis and never misses playing cards with his friends. His mind is still as sharp as ever.
When I saw that news item my mind went berzerk! Here's a Jewish fellow from a religious home that G-d granted a sharp and gifted mind that he was able to maintain for 100 years - that's 100 years without a wheelchair! - and this gifted Jewish fellow spends a few hours a day playing cards!
And what is he going to bring with him when he finally gets upstairs (he did, within four months)?
Nothing! Absolutely nothing! 100 years of a brilliant mind and he has absolutely nothing!
Can you imagine? G-d (the real One) says to him: "Nathan, I gave you 100 years on your feet and what did you bring Me? A deck of cards?"
It isn't funny, George (er, I mean, Nate).
What a waste! I wrote as much in my essay. I don't remember the way I wrote it but I remember this line:
If that man would have done nothing more than devote one hour per day to hear a daf yomi shiur from the day he was 70 years old... by now, he would have finished all of shas 4 times!!!
(Note - I am about half way to 100 and I still haven't finished shas once but I am closing in on it!)
Finish shas 4 times! For one hour per day. From age 70!! (His non-Jewish wife died when he was 68.) And he went up there with nothing!
I recall that I ended this essay with an old Jewish joke from one of those Jewish Folklore books:
2 women approached the local Rav to complain about their husbands. One's husband was a miser to the extreme and wouldn't relinquish a penny to someone less fortunate and his wife couldn't deal with it. The other was a compulsive philanthropist and would give his money to the needy to the point of self-depravation and his wife could barely meet the household budget.
The Rav told each woman to send their respective husbands to him for a consultation.
Both husbands arrived at the Rav at the same time. The Rav asked the first woman's husband, "Is it true that you do not give any money to the needy?" The man admitted so and the Rav asked him to explain.
"Well, I know that some people live well into their 80s and 90s and they cannot work and have no source of livelihood. I am afraid that if I give my spare money to others and don't store it away, there will be nothing left to keep me afloat in my golden years."
The Rav then asked the second woman's husband, "Is it true that you squander your money to charity?" The man admitted so and the Rav asked him to explain.
"Well, I know that life is very short. We are here one moment and gone the next. If I die tomorrow, what good would be to me a treasure of money? I want to see to it that my money is being put to good use immediately. I cannot worry about a tomorrow that may never come. If G-d gives me life, He will give me food."
The Rav looked at the two men and made a summation: "So it appears that husband #1 hordes all his money because he is afraid that he may live a very long time. Husband #2 disperses his money because he is afraid that he may not live another day."
"May G-d preserve each of you from what he fears the most!"