In the Pirke Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers 3:10), we find a rather exorbitant statement by one of the Sages: “Rabbi Dostai ben Yanai said in the name of Rabbi Meir:” Whoever forgets even one thing of his Torah learning, Scripture regards him as though he is guilty to pay with his life, for it is said: “Be careful and guard your life greatly, lest you forget the things you saw (at the time of the revelation at Sinai) with your own eyes, and lest they be removed from your heart your entire lifetime, and you shall inform your children and grandchildren of them, the day you stood before God, your God at Chorev…. ” (Devarim 4,9-10)
Why should the failure to remember a part of Torah which one learned give evidence to the fact that one forgot that what one had seen with his own eyes when he stood at Sinai? Besides the fact that forgetfulness is a normal human condition there is also a great difference between the power of sight and the act of learning. In the case of the generation which actually stood at Sinai, we understand why such people should be liable. They actually saw the revelation at Sinai. But why should those who did not stand at Sinai and “only” learned Torah and afterwards forgot, be liable as well? How could Rabbi Dostai compare anybody who lives thousands of years after the revelation with those who actually stood at Sinai?
In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban states that the verse quoted above clearly focuses on the circumstances under which the Torah was given and not on the actual contents of the Torah. In that case, it is even more difficult to see how the observation by Rabbi Dostai is born out by the verse he quotes as his proof. He points to the fact that those who learn the contents of the Torah and then forget what they learned are guilty to pay with their lives, but his proof is derived from a statement which speaks about the need to keep the circumstances under which the Torah was given alive and not about its content.
It is rather interesting to note that the Sinai experience never gave rise to a special day in the Jewish calendar. Although it is true that Shavuoth is traditionally seen as the day of the giving of the Torah, it is still remarkable that there is no such connection made in the biblical text — it was the Sages who made this connection. Shavuoth mainly appears as a festival celebrating the new harvest (See Vayikra 23: 9-22). Neither does the Torah command the Israelites to observe a special mitzvah with the purpose to reenact this unique moment in Jewish history. Compare this to the case of Pesach or Succoth. These historical events are translated into numerous mitzvoth such as the consumption of matzah and the dwelling in the succah.
We must, therefore, draw the conclusion that while the festivals like Pesach and Succoth need to be contemporized every year, there is no such need when dealing with the event of revelation. Pesach and Succoth celebrate events which took place in the past and through reenacting them by means of such commandments as matzah and succah, the Jew is able to experience them once more.
This is not so when we deal with the moment of revelation. There is no need to commemorate the event! We believe the reason for this is most telling. One does not commemorate something which takes place in the “here and now” just as it would be an affront to commemorate a human being when he is living with us is the present day.
By refusing to give the revelation at Sinai any commemoration, the Torah makes the crucial point that the revelation at Sinai is not a past experience which needs to be reactivated in the present (like Pesach or Succoth). It is an ongoing adventure! At Sinai the revelation started but it never came to a close. Its words perpetuate and persist. But how does this revelation continue? It continues through the Torah itself, by its study. Learning Torah is revelation! The Torah is not the record of that what once happened at Sinai, but that which takes place now while we study Torah. Granted, it is rooted in the moment of Sinai when it started to penetrate into our universe, but that moment continues to unfold.
As such, learning Torah is neither the study of what happened a long time ago nor what God once commanded man to do. Rather it is the confrontation with the divine word at this present moment. Torah learning is made from completely different components from any other study known to man. It is not a confrontation with a text but with a voice. And it is not just listening to this voice which is required, but it is a type of higher level hearing which comes about through actively responding to that voice. This is accomplished through the careful observance of the commandments. It is the divine voice which is captured and becomes tangible in the fulfillment of the mitzvoth. “One hears differently when one hears in doing,” Franz Rosenzweig, the famous philosopher and baal teshuva once observed. (Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning, Schocken, NY, 1955) Said differently: There is an experiential difference between a secular act of reading or studying a text and the religious act of listening to Torah.
We are now able to understand Rabbi Dostai’s observation: One can only forget that which was, but one cannot forget what is. Learning Torah is equivalent to standing at Sinai. Learning Torah is seeing its contents handed over at Sinai in the “here and now.” So the learning of its text is a religious happening, the experience of that which normally can only be recalled. The moment one forgets Torah one transgresses “Lest you forget the things which you saw.” This could not mean anything else but that when one has reached the point where his Torah knowledge may be forgotten, it must be the result of something which he saw and not what he sees! But when one learns Torah as a religious experience, and one sees its revelation alive then the gap of several thousand years, from the time when the revelation started and where it finds itself now no longer exists. As such Torah is given today and Rabbi Dostai draws our attention to a major foundation of Jewish belief.
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