28 Tevet 5780 — January 25, 2020
What do the late Philip Roth, one of the greatest writers of our time, and Steph Curry, one of the greatest basketball players of our time, have in common?
Philip Roth was once asked by Robert Siegel, an NPR host, how he was able to write so many award-winning novels. Roth answered that there is no secret. Rather, he works all day, every day, six or seven days a week. He offered that many times he will look at what he has written, in a ten-hour day, and he does not like anything he wrote, he throws it all away. Robert Siegel asks him: how do you feel on a day where you end up throwing away everything you wrote, and his answer is: “You wouldn’t want to have dinner with me.” But the next morning he is at it again.
Steph Curry redefined the modern NBA. He was the first player to regularly and as a matter of course shoot three-point shots, shots more than 24 feet away from the basket, and to do so with consistent expert precision. He not only led his team, the Golden State Warriors, to three NBA championships in five years, he was the Most Valuable Player in several of the past seasons because his long-distance accuracy changed the game. How did this happen? No secrets and no magic. He shoots 300 to 500 shots a day, all different kinds of shots from different places on the court. He spends two hours a day practicing his dribbling, dribbling two balls at once while being blinded by different lights that obscure his vision so that he has total control over his dribble on game day. He does this every day.
The best writer writes every day, the best basketball player practices his shooting and dribbling every day, because they both get the virtue of discipline, which at the deepest level is doing something regularly, doing something every day, not because you love doing it all the time, not because you enjoy every minute of the endless repetition, but because it is who you are, and what you do.
They say that character is what you do when no one is looking. That is true. And I would add a corollary. Character is what you do when you are not feeling it, when you would rather not do it, but you do it anyway because you are committed to some long-range goal that requires daily exertion.
Now in some ways it feels obvious that to accomplish what we want to accomplish we need discipline. But this kind of discipline–I do it every day, I do it even when I don’t want to do it–bumps up against some prevailing norms of our culture which emphasize our total autonomy. Do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Don’t do what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it. Just this week I was reading a lengthy piece in the Times called I Quit. 21 stories of proud Quitting. Here is my story about how I quit my band, my university, my relationship, my job, my goals, my doctors. I stopped feeling it. I quit.
Now there may be those rare times when quitting is a healthy move, but if you think about the relationships that matter most to you, and your core sense of who you aspire to be, quitting is not an option. Discipline is the option.
We need discipline to be the kind of parent we want to be. We don’t have the luxury of quitting on our children when the going gets tough. We don’t only parent our children for the fun things, taking them out for ice cream. The proving ground of parenthood is often when it is not fun, not easy, and we do it anyway.
We need discipline to be the kind of child we want to be to fulfill the Fifth Commandment, Honor Your Father and Your Mother. We don’t have the luxury of quitting on our parents when the going gets tough. We don’t only love our parents, including our elderly parents, when they are younger and healthier. The proving ground of honoring our parents is when it is not fun, not easy, and we do it anyway.
We need discipline to be the kind of spouse we want to be. The proving ground of marriage is when it is gritty and gray and life and the kids and the sandwich generation and the parents and the job and the bills and running the home are not always fun, not always easy, and we are committed to our marriage anyway.
So here is my question for you. What do you do every day even when it is not fun, not easy, but you do it anyway because doing it every day makes you who you are or aspire to be?
Now the Jewish people have this fabulous tradition called daf yomi, which means daily page. It refers to a page of the Babylonian Talmud which looks like this. The daf yomi program is a course of disciplined study where, every day, you read or study or hear a podcast about one page, front and back, of a page of Talmud. And if you study one page of Talmud a day, every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, you will finish studying the entire Babylonian Talmud in 7 and a half years.
What does it look like, and feel like, to do this daily page? Sometimes the material is fascinating, sometimes not. Sometimes the material is dry, technical, not particularly relevant to today’s world. Sometimes you might be loving it; other times not. Sometimes it is joyful to do that page; other times pure obligation. What happens to the person who can do their daily page in all kinds of weather, through all kinds of moods, on all kinds of days? Doing your daily page day after day changes you. It makes you more disciplined, more deep—as the events of New Year’s Day would show.
On New Year’s Day, 1/1/2020, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, there was this massive celebration of the most recent completion of this 7-and a half year cycle of Talmud study called siyyum hashas, completing all the tractates of the Talmud. 92,000 people were there
to celebrate daily study. My brother and his son in love and grandchildren were there because his son in love had committed to this program and had completed it. It was January. It was bitter cold. His grandchildren shared that after a while they could not feel their feet it was so cold. And yet, you can see this on YouTube, there was a feeling of intense exuberance—92,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish males of all ages singing and dancing and whirling and twirling. This celebration was happening in New Jersey. In Poland. In Jerusalem. Jews the world over were celebrating daily constancy.
My brother has a friend who is a Haredi, who was there, who told my brother the following story. A few days after the celebration, early January, he happened to have been speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. A state trooper pulled him over. Sir did you know that you were driving well over the speed limit? I am so sorry officer. It was my bad. I was rushing and I should not have been. Just then the state trooper said to him by any chance, were you at that celebration at MetLife, at Giants’ Stadium, for the completion of the daily page? The driver said as a matter of fact, yes I was. The officer asked: have you finished your daily page today? The driver said I have not yet done it today. I usually do it after work, when I get home at the end of the day. The officer said I’ll make you a deal. If you promise me that you will do your daily page today, I will let you go. The driver said of course. Of course I will do my daily page when I get home. But can I ask you a question officer, why do you care? Do you care because you happen to be Jewish?
Not at all, the officer said. I am not Jewish. Here is why I care. My partner and I usually work Giants games and concerts at MetLife. At games and concerts, there is always drinking, and often people behave badly. They get into fights. They throw things. Working at MetLife almost always involves ejecting people who are misbehaving. But when we were at the daily page celebration, my partner and I were stunned. There were 92,000 people. Of all ages. For several hours. On a really cold day. And no one misbehaved. There was no alcohol at all. There were no fistfights. Nobody threw anything or called anybody any names. Nobody got ejected. Instead, for several hours, people danced and sang. My partner said to me I am going to convert to Judaism. And he wasn’t kidding. He said: I don’t know what’s in those daily pages, but it sure works, and I want to find out. They are tapping into something very real, very powerful, something that our society needs, something that I need. So he is going to study to convert to be a Jew, and I am going to let you go if you promise to do your daily page.
We are the measure of what we do every day, especially when it is not fun and it is not easy, but we do it anyway because doing it anyway makes us who we are.
What is your daily page? Shabbat shalom.