Shavuot: Reading a text or listening to a voice?

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:10), we find a rather exorbitant statement made by one of the Sages: “Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai says, in the name of Rabbi Meir: Whoever forgets [even] one word  of his [Torah] learning is regarded by the Scripture as worthy of death, for it is said [Devarim 4:9-10]: ‘Be careful and guard your life diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw [at the  Revelation on Mount Sinai], and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.’” This verse continues, “And you shall inform your children and grandchildren about the day that you stood before the Lord, your God, at Chorev…”.

Why should the failure to remember a detail of Torah that a person learned be considered proof that they forgot what they saw with their own eyes when standing 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 those people who actually stood at Sinai, we understand why they should be liable. They literally saw the Revelation.  But why should liability be imposed on those who did not stand at Sinai, but “only” learned Torah and afterwards forgot part of it? How could Rabbi Dostai compare anyone who lives thousands of years after the Revelation with those who were actually there?

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 Rabbi Dostai’s observation is supported by the verse he brings 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 and must pay with their lives.  His proof, however, is derived from a statement that emphasizes the need to keep alive the circumstances under which the Torah was given, not the Torah’s content.

It is rather interesting to note that the Sinai experience never gave rise to a special day in the Jewish calendar. Although Shavuot is traditionally seen as the day commemorating the giving of the Torah, it is remarkable that there is no such association made in the biblical text. It was the Sages who made this connection. Shavuot appears mainly as a festival celebrating the new harvest. (Vayikra 23:9-22)  The Torah does not even command the Israelites to observe a special mitzvah of re-enacting this unique moment in Jewish history, as is the case with the Exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ journey through 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 must be commemorated every year, there is no such need regarding the Revelation at Sinai. Pesach and Sukkot celebrate events that took place in the past, and by reenacting them with commandments such as matzah and sukkah, we are able to experience them once again.

This is not the case with regard to the Revelation. There is no need to commemorate the event, and I believe the reason for this is most telling. One does not memorialize something  that takes place in the here and now, just as it would be offensive to  honor the memory of a human being when that person is still alive and among us.

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 on Pesach and Sukkot. It is an ongoing adventure! Sinai was where the Revelation started, but it never ended. Its words perpetuate and persist. But how does this Revelation continue?  Through the Torah itself; by our studying it and living it . Learning and living Torah is revelation! The Torah is not a record of what once happened at Sinai, but rather of what takes place now, as 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 long ago nor is it a record of what God once commanded us 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 a confrontation with a voice, not with a text.  It requires not just listening to this voice  but also perceiving its sound with a higher level of hearing, which results from actively responding to that voice. This is accomplished through careful observance of the commandments. It is the divine voice that 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 ba’al teshuva. (On Jewish Learning, New York: Schocken Books, 1955)  In other words, there is an experiential difference between the 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, one cannot forget what is. Learning Torah is equivalent to standing at Sinai. Learning Torah is seeing its contents transmitted at Sinai in the here and now. So the learning of its text is a religious happening. 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 saw but are not hearing and seeing now! However, when one learns Torah as a religious experience and hears its revelation, then the gap of several thousand years – from the  start of the Revelation until its continuation now – no longer exists. Accordingly, Torah is given today, and Rabbi Dostai draws our attention to a major foundation of Jewish belief.

In honor of the marriage of Melissa Zeloof and David Lasday

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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