Just exactly what happened on Mount Sinai?

I recently re-ran into a midrash that struck me very deeply. It is a re-creation of the scene where Moses is learning Torah from the Almighty for 40 days and 40 nights.

For years, I, and I would assume many others, thought Moses needed that much time because there was so much Torah to absorb. Just glancing around the many shelves in my own personal text library, I can understand why we thought that way.

I. Personal Background

I can picture myself decades ago and throughout my education and beyond staring into space, daydreaming, or just being “somewhere else” in my mind. On the one hand, I could latch onto a fact or idea and it would be indelibly impacted in my mind and consciousness, and, on the other hand, I could not follow — or did not want to follow — a sequence of thoughts.

It took me until I was in my 50s when I realized my mind worked free-associatively and poetically, and that being constrained to focus on linear or logical learning was very wearing. Aside from other kinds of “learning differently,” it was when one of my two psychiatrists tested me and concluded that I was a classic case of ADD, and my picture should be in the medical and educational literature.

I was 59 when that was revealed to me, a enormous revelation. The Good Doctor added, that I was exhausted, meaning that the strain of fitting into linear and logical thinking was draining my true strength. Which is why, among other things, I skip around a page, a book (I read a biography of Eisenhower backwards, starting with D-Day all the way to childhood), and websites, which drive me crazy with all the colors, flashing lights, click here, click there.

And it explains how I “re-ran into” this midrash, which is on page 38 of a section of the Talmud. I would have never “re-run into” it if I had tried to start looking at my underlinings from the beginning. I would have never gotten to page 38.

In addition, it clarifies why I did not have to wait will middle age or later in life to immediately forget some things I had just learned five minutes before.

My study model, besides my classmates, was and is, my brother Stanley, two years older. He is very bright, and has zitzfleisch. He can put his rear-end in a chair and plow through anything he sets his mind to. The end result, was a PhD in physics, and a long career in the beneficial configuration of computers for any organization, system, or business.

II. The Midrash Itself

Rabbi Yochanan said: At first Moshe would learn the Torah [that God was teaching with him] and then forget it.

Finally, it was given to him as a present [by God], as the verse states (Exodus 31:18) He gave it to Moshe when He had finished speaking with him. (Nedarim 38a)

Aha! So that’s what was going up there. Even in such a confrontation, namely, the greatest Torah student in the world, and the Ineffably Divine Torah Teacher, something wasn’t working. At this point, one must add, as it were, God did not have the proper understanding of the way Moses could study Torah.

We know from another midrash (Niddah 30b) that before we are born, we are taught the entire Torah, but at the moment of birth, an angel slaps us on the mouth causing a complete traumatic forgetting. So (1) it’s all there inside of us, as it was with Moses, (2) the essence of any kind of learning is really remembering, and (3) the teacher’s essential task is to picture and follow the unique mental GPS route to that student’s way back to Torah.

And I think that’s exactly what happened on Mount Sinai. As it were, when the Holy One realized that the “standard method” of teaching didn’t work, God chose another way. And I imagine it happened in a flash, at the end of the 40 days. The whole body of Torah that he had struggled to absorb, entered Moshe Rabbeynu’s mind in one awesome flash of an Aha! moment.

That was the gift. And — one might add, as it were, that is why Moses radiated such light when he came down the mountain.

Most likely, we “normal” Jews can’t feel or imagine that kind of event because it is so far beyond our understanding of the human mind. But it happened. Otherwise, how could Rabbi Yochanan teach such an outrageously bold and gorgeous story

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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