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” (1), for it is said: “Be careful and guard your life diligently, lest you forget the things that your [own] eyes saw [at the Revelation at Sinai], and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; and you shall inform your children and grandchildren of them, the day that you stood before the Lord, your God, at Chorev …” (2)
Why should a person’s failure to remember a detail of Torah that he learned be considered proof that he forgot what he 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. Regarding the people of the generation that actually stood at Sinai, we understand why they should be liable. They literally saw 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 afterwards forgot part of it, be liable as well? How could Rabbi Dostai compare people who live 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? (3) 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 Shemot 20:15 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 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 about 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 connection. Shavuot appears mainly as a festival celebrating the new harvest. (4) 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 sojourn need to be commemorated every year, there is no such necessity regarding the Revelation at Sinai. Pesach and Sukkot celebrate events that took place in the past, and by re-enacting them through commandments such as matzah and sukkah, we are able to 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 when he 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 extra-ordinary circumstances remain and persist. But 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, but of that which 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 is it a record of what God once commanded man to do. Rather it is a confrontation with the divine word at this present moment. Torah learning is made up of components that are completely different from those of any other study known to man.
It is not a confrontation with a text but rather with a voice. And what is required is not just listening to this voice, but also using a type of high-level hearing, which results from actively responding to that voice. This is, amazingly enough, accomplished 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 doing,” said Franz Rosenzweig, famous philosopher and baal teshuvah. (5) 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 things that your eyes saw.” This can mean only one thing: that when people have reached the point where their Torah knowledge has been forgotten, it must be the result of something that they merely read and not what they were hearing and seeing!
When a person learns Torah as a religious experience and hears its revelation, then 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.
(1) Ethics of the Fathers 3: 10.
(2) Devarim 4: 9-10.
(3) Shemot 20: 15.
(4) Vayikra 23: 9-22.
(5) Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning (New York: Schocken Books, 1955).