Walking through the Talmud and the land of Israel

How could I, a middle-aged, not-particularly-learned, not-particularly-athletic mother of six find the time, the energy, the drive and the understanding to learn Talmud and hike the Israel trail?

ON THE Israel Trail (photo credit: AMICHAI SUSSMAN)
ON THE Israel Trail
(photo credit: AMICHAI SUSSMAN)
Recently I did two amazing things; two things that seem to have nothing in common, but are surprisingly intertwined.
I finished Masechet Shabbat, the second masechet in the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of learning Talmud. And I finished the first 100 kilometers of the Israel Trail, a trail that consists of about 1,100 kilometers in total.
As I started considering these two accomplishments and thinking about how proud I am of myself and how grateful I am to have the opportunity to reach this moment, I realized just how similar these two activities are.
Last year, my family set a goal of walking the Israel Trail together. So far, we have found nine days to put aside for the task, and we broke each day into 10- to 12-kilometer hikes. At the beginning of January, when the last Talmud cycle finished, one of my good friends created a group for women in my small community and encouraged me to try to learn the daily daf. I’ve certainly never learned Gemara before – I’ve never learned many things – but I decided I would listen to the daily class given by Rabbanit Michelle Farber of Hadran and see how I did.
Both of these activities were far-reaching and seemingly unrealistic goals. How could I, a middle-aged, not-particularly-learned, not-particularly-athletic mother of six find the time, the energy, the drive and the understanding to reach these goals? Both goals are so large and expansive. It would have been so easy, with either goal, to laugh off the process, to simply say it’s too much; it’s too lofty a goal; it’s too time-consuming or expensive or complicated or hard to follow through. It’s too… so many things.
But instead, in both instances, I told myself that I would give it a try. I didn’t say that I would finish, but rather that I would try. And in trying, I’m seeing the magic of the task at hand. Each day when I show up for the daf and listen to the shiur, I’ve accomplished another day and I’m one day closer to the goal. Will I get through the 7.5 year cycle and complete all 2,711 pages? Who knows? But am I learning a little Talmud every single day? Yes.
Every day that we schedule a trip up North and then finish a hike, I’ve accomplished another day and I’m one day closer to that goal, too. Will we managed to get the family together for the rest of the 1,000 kilometers and hike the entire way? Who knows? But am I learning about the Land of Israel and enjoying time with my family each time that we head out? Yes.
AND THEN COVID-19 hit, and there were so many more reasons to say neither task could be done. Who has time to learn a daf a day with a job (now being done from the living room), six kids in school (now being done from the living room), and a husband (now working from the living room)? And who can possibly think of hiking when we are stuck in perpetual lockdown, one step away from being put into quarantine after the lockdown and scared to book a cabin and lose the deposit if someone becomes sick? There were just so many more reasons not to continue with either goal.
And yet, of course, there are so many reasons to continue. The daily daf created consistency in the midst of lockdown chaos; the goal of getting on the Israel Trail again created excitement and anticipation in a time of fear and concern.
When you start something large and potentially overwhelming, there is always room to try to back out. It’s scary to think of committing to something time-consuming and energy-draining. But really, the commitment is just to that one moment, that one day. Yes, it would be wonderful to finish the Talmud cycle and to get to those last kilometers in Eilat, but the fact that I’ve started the journey is also enough. The fact that I’ve learned over 200 pages of Talmud, and the fact that I’ve walked 100 kilometers of the land in Israel is, in itself, such an accomplishment. And each time that I add just one day or one footstep to that accomplishment, it adds that much more magic.
Mt. Meron (Credit: Amichai Sussman)Mt. Meron (Credit: Amichai Sussman)
It’s amazing to see how much each step adds up. When I think about the thousands of pages of Talmud ahead of me, or the thousand kilometers still to take, I start to wonder, “Who am I kidding?.” I can’t accomplish these goals. But then, when I look back at how many pages of Talmud I’ve done, I can see that they actually start to add up. There is substance there – each day of learning has turned into the completion of more than 200 pages. When I look back at the trail and see that we walked through Kiryat Shemona, all the way up Mount Meron, past Safed and down to the Kinneret, I can see that accomplishment on a map. Each day looks like endlessly hot, dry land, but at the end of a few days, I could actually see the physical distance and the kilometers we’ve hiked.
While the experience of working on both of these goals is invigorating and ego-boosting, it’s also ego-deflating and humbling. How can both exist at the same time? Each time I finish a daf, and particularly when I’ve now finished two masachtot, I feel empowered, smarter, excited. With each hike that we take, I feel strong, accomplished (and allowed to eat a lot of chocolate for all those calories I’ve obviously burned). But the little that I’ve accomplished also opens my eyes to the vast expanse of things that I don’t know and places that I haven’t been. That creates a deep feeling of humility, and at times even frustration, to think of how much more there is to learn and hike.
Yet I will continue with both pursuits. With each daf that I learn and every step that I take along the Trail, I learn more about the people of my history, the land of my history – and myself. These two pursuits of hiking the Land of Israel and learning the foundational text of our nation are intricately intertwined for me, and will probably continue to be for the many years to come as I reach for both goals; one daf and one step at a time.
Originally from Los Angeles, the writer frequently writes about raising six sons in Israel and her experience as an olah.