With the recent flare-up of tensions between the Orthodox, Masorti and
Conservative movements with regard to egalitarian practice, it is clear
that the evolution of Judaism is not intended to be a smooth or easy
process. As we say in addiction treatment, relapse is an important part
of recovery and need not be grieved. We can choose to see it as two
steps forward and one step back. Here is this week’s d‘var Torah:
In this week’s parashah, Va’etchanan, Moshe repeatedly warns the people of Israel that they must not forget the experience of revelation or the covenant at Sinai: “Take utmost care and do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes so that they do not fade from your mind for as long as you live” (4:9, see also 4:23). The Israelites must remember the experience of Sinai in its full intensity and convey that experience to their children, so that Torah remains alive in each generation and the climactic encounter with the divine retains its powerful hold. The ancient rabbis, drawing on this verse as proof text, issued stern injunctions against forgetting Torah, warning that “whoever forgets one word of his learning, it is accounted to him as if he were mortally guilty” (Avot 3:8). And yet as we all know, forgetting is an inevitable part of learning, and every subsequent generation is further removed from the experience at Sinai. What then are we to make of Moshe’s repeated injunctions not to forget? Is forgetting necessarily a mark of failure?
Though the rabbis warn against the dangers of forgetting, they also recognize that to some extent it cannot be helped. Although the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish cautions that “anyone who forgets even one matter from his studies violates a negative commandment,” his words are qualified by Rabbi Dostai, who explains that this is only the case if a person willfully forgets his studies, and not if he is just struggling to remember (Menachot 99b). Rav Yosef adds that if a Torah scholar forgets his learning, we do not shame him but continue to treat him with respect, since after all the broken tablets, too, were placed in the ark besides the new set. The Talmud associates the broken tablets with forgetting, arguing that “had the tablets not been smashed, Torah would not have been forgotten from Israel” (Eruvin 54a). These sources suggest that forgetting Torah is a necessary evil, a byproduct of a particular historical moment that left its tragic mark on all subsequent generations.
And yet our tradition also contains other voices that recognize that forgetting Torah can in fact have positive value, and can deepen rather than dilute our learning. The midrash in Kohelet Rabbah (1:13) quotes various sages who argued that “it is for a person’s own good that he learns Torah and then forgets it, because if a person were to learn Torah and never forget, he would study Torah for two or three years and then go back to his work, and he would never invest his whole life in Torah.” Since we never remember everything we learn, we are able to spend our whole lives learning. The rabbis relate that this is in fact the way that the wise King Solomon would study Torah – he would “empty himself like a vessel that is alternately filled and then emptied,” forgetting Torah so as to allow himself to learn it anew (Kohelet Rabbah 2:12). While this may seem like just another example of the vanity and futility that characterizes the book of Kohelet, perhaps the rabbis are trying to teach us a deeper lesson about the value of forgetting and re-learning.
As King Solomon and the rabbis surely realized, no two experiences of learning are the same. When we re-learn, we are not just restoring whatever it is that we have forgotten. A text will speak to us in different ways at different points in our lives, and with each subsequent encounter, we are likely to read the text differently and discover new insights. By forgetting and re-learning, we clear out any earlier biases, assumptions, or ways of thinking that might have once colored our perspective. In this sense, forgetting allows not just for more learning, but also for new learning. Perhaps this is what the Talmudic rabbis meant when they taught that “sometimes the abrogation of Torah is its foundation” (Menachot 99b), quoting as proof the verse in which God tells Moses to carve out new tablets to replace the ones he has broken (Exodus 34:1). The Talmud then cites a well-known midrash in which God commends Moshe with the words “yasher koach” for breaking the tablets, suggesting that something good came out of that brokenness. The midrash in Exodus Rabbah (46:1) adds that God told Moses not to feel bad about breaking the tablets, because the new set would contain not just the written Torah, but the Oral Torah as well. The shattering of the first set of tablets did not just result in a reality in which Torah is forgotten, but also allowed for the creation of new ways of learning.
Although Moshe cautions the people not to forget any aspect of the revelation at Sinai, he surely must have realized that it would be impossible for the people to remember everything. And even if they did not manage to remember it all, surely their children would begin to forget, or perhaps their children’s children. Today we are so far removed from the revelation at Sinai that we can at best try to imagine what it must have been like when “from the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you, on earth. He let you see His great fire, and from amidst that fire you heard His words” (Deuteronomy 4:36), as we read in this week’s parashah. And yet because the first set of tablets were shattered and because we forget, we have been given the Oral Torah – the corpus of halakhah, aggadah, midrash and talmud, in which generations of rabbis try to tease out the meaning of the text. This Torah is oral not just because it was at first not written down, but also because every generation is invited to add its own voices. When we learn and forget and learn again, we participate in an experience of revelation that is eternal, ensuring that the divine encounter at Sinai continues to reverberate and is never forgotten.