“Be careful and guard your life diligently, lest you forget the events that your eyes saw.” (Devarim 4:9.)
In Pirkei Avot, we find a rather radical statement made by one of the Sages: “Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai said, in the name of Rabbi Meir: ”Whoever forgets [even] one word of his [Torah] learning, the Scripture considers him worthy of death” (Ethics of the Fathers 3: 10), as it is said: “Be careful and guard your life diligently, lest you forget the events that your [own] eyes saw [at the Revelation at Mount Sinai], and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; and you shall teach your children and grandchildren about the day that you stood before God, your Lord, at Chorev…” (Devarim 4: 9-10.).
Why should people’s failure to remember a detail of Torah that they learned be considered proof that they forgot what they had seen with their own eyes when they 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. Regarding the people of the generation that stood at Sinai, we understand why they should be liable. They actually witnessed the Revelation, which must have been an unforgettable experience! But why should those who did not see the Revelation at Sinai, but “only” learned Torah and subsequently forgot part of it, be liable as well?
How could Rabbi Dostai compare people who lived thousands of years after the Revelation with those who actually stood at Sinai and witnessed the entire drama, even seeing thunder and the sound of the shofar (Shemot 20: 15.)? It was an event during which human faculties functioned on levels that were beyond normal.
In his commentary on the Torah, Ramban states that the verse in Shemotclearly 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 supported 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 liable to pay with their lives, but his proof is derived from a statement that speaks of the need to keep alive the circumstances under which the Torah was given, not 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 Shavuot 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 association. Shavuot appears mainly as a festival celebrating the new harvest (Vayikra 23: 9-22.). The Torah does not command us to observe a special mitzvah to re-enact this unique moment in Jewish history, as is the case with the Exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. These historical events are translated into numerous mitzvot, such as eating matzah on Pesach and dwelling in the sukkah on Sukkot.
We must therefore conclude that while the Exodus and the desert travels need to be commemorated every year, there is no such necessity regarding the Revelation at Sinai. On Pesach and Sukkot we celebrate events that took place in the past, and by re-enacting them through observing their relative commandments, we can experience them once more.
This is not the case with regard to the Revelation, and this extraordinary fact begs the question: why?
I believe the reason for this is most telling. One does not commemorate something that takes place in the here and now, just as it would be offensive to memorialize a human being who is still alive and in our midst.
By refusing to commemorate the Revelation at Sinai, the Torah makes the crucial point that it is not a past experience that needs to be re-enacted in the present, as we do with Pesach and Sukkot. It is an ongoing adventure! At Sinai, the Revelation began, but never ended. Its extraordinary circumstances remain and persist. And how does this happen? Paradoxically, it endures through the Torah itself, by its study and contemplation. Learning Torah is itself revelation!
The Torah is not a record of what once happened at Sinai; it is an experience that takes place now while we study it. Yes, it is rooted in the moment at Sinai when it began to penetrate our universe, but that moment continues to unfold.
Consequently, learning Torah is neither the study of what happened a long time ago nor a record of what God once commanded humans to do. Rather, it is an encounter with the divine word at this present moment. Torah learning is made up of elements that are completely different from those of any other study known to humanity.
It is an encounter not with a text but rather with a voice. And what is required is not only listening to this voice, but also using a type of high-level hearing, which results from actively responding to the voice. This is accomplished, amazingly enough, through the careful observance of the commandments. The divine voice is captured and becomes tangible in the fulfillment of the mitzvot. “One hears differently when one hears in the doing,” said Franz Rosenzweig, famous philosopher and ba’al teshuvah (Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning, ed. N.N. Glatzer (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), p. 122).
In other words, there is an experiential difference between the secular act of reading or studying a text and the religious act of learning Torah. Rosenzweig tells us that there is a great distinction between the giving of the Torah and the receiving of the Torah. The Torah was given once, but receiving it takes place in every generation. The underlying question is whether the Torah is a historical document, which can only be understood in its historical context (such as what Bible criticism is involved in), or whether its teachings are meant to detach themselves from their historicity.
Rabbi Dostai alludes to this very question. He maintains that the Torah is made of heavenly stuff, and history is only its most basic and external feature. Therefore, it does not conform to the criteria of history and its confines. One can only forget that which was, and consequently was only rooted in history; one cannot forget what is and what is beyond history.
Learning Torah is equivalent to standing at Sinai. Learning Torah is hearing it and consequently seeing its contents transmitted at Sinai in the here and now. So the learning of its text is a religious happening, the experience of something that normally can only be recalled. The moment one forgets Torah, one transgresses “Lest you forget the events that your eyes saw.” This can mean only one thing: when people have reached the point where their Torah knowledge has been forgotten, it must be the result of having merely read something instead of having heard or seen it!
When a person learns Torah as a religious experience and hears its revelation, the gap of several thousand years – from the Revelation until now – no longer exists. Accordingly, Torah is given today, and Rabbi Dostai draws our attention to a major foundation of Jewish belief.
It is indeed a terrible tragedy that very few people today hear Torah, while the majority keeps on learning it. If they would start listening, the question of whether or not the Torah is really from Heaven would never even be asked. Bible criticism would no longer be convincing and would easily be defeated.
It would behoove roshei yeshiva and teachers to create an entirely different mode of education. They have an obligation to ensure that their students hear Torah and Talmud, not just study them.