INSIGHT
5772 - #18

Yitro

EXISTENTIAL STUDY

           In many Siddurim, at the conclusion of Shacharit, one will find what is referred to as the Sheish Zichirot, The Six Remembrances, a list of six items the Torah commands us to remember.1 What one may find interesting, though, is that the actual directive to remember Ma’amad Har Sinai, The Revelation at Sinai, unlike the others,2 is phrased in the negative. In all the other cases, the dominant word is zachor, remember; in the case of Har Sinai, the word zachor, is not even found but rather the language of the directive is solely ‘do not forget’.3 The obvious question is: why?

            On the surface, Devarim 4:9, the source text for the directive not to forget Sinai, would seem to apply solely to those who actually witnessed the event. The Torah seems to be saying to those who participated in the Revelation at Sinai not to forget it, not to remove it from their hearts. The truth is, though, that the Torah often presents itself as solely speaking directly to the desert generation yet the law is still deemed applicable into the future. A look at the other verses that demand of us to remember would point this out. Devarim 25:17, which commands us to remember Amalek, specifically directs us to remember what Amalek did to us but it is still deemed applicable into the future, demanding of us, today, as such, to remember that we were taught what Amalek did to the desert generation. These verses, however, seem to be much more cognitive; it is a fact or a thought that is to be remembered. As such, it would seem to not demand too much of a leap to understand these verses in this manner. In regard to Sinai, though, it is not simply the event that we are not to forget but, rather, we are not to forget what our eyes saw. How could those who were simply taught about Sinai be instructed not to forget what their eyes saw there? Our eyes saw nothing, we were not actually there. We were simply taught about Sinai. How could a subsequent generation who did not witness Sinai be commanded, as such, not to forget what their eyes saw, what they experienced?

            Ramban, Addendum to Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, List of Substituted Negative Mitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 2, in distinction from Rambam, counts this command not to forget Har Sinai as one of Taryag, the 613 Mitzvot. Based upon the verse, he actually seems to present the mitzvah as having two parts. First, one is not to forget. Second, one is not to withhold passing on knowledge of this event to subsequent generations. In his comments on the Torah, Ramban, Devarim 4:9 is actually more explicit about the two parts to this mitzvah, there implying that part of the command is not to forget while the other part of the command is to inform subsequent generations of Sinai.4  This would seem, on the surface, to actually strengthen our question. We can understand a population being instructed not to forget an event but, rather, to ensure that knowledge of the event is passed on to subsequent generations but, as this command goes through the generations, how are we to understand a directive to those who were taught about this event to, in turn, not forget it but, rather, ensure that its knowledge is passed on? One may counter that this is but the normal chain of education yet, there is something in the language of this command that distinguishes it from this normal chain. The directive seems to be more than simply one of learn and teach. In fact, there seems to be no positive instruction to learn;5 only the command not to forget. Rather than implying the normal flow of knowledge through the generations, this command seems to structure two distinct activities – one, not to forget; the other, to pass it on – with a focus on the first part. This seems to be beyond education.

            Ramban further writes ki limud emunat haTorah hu limud baTorah,6 implying even more so that he is clearly speaking beyond cognitive education. The Hebrew word emunah means much more than belief, or even trust, but reflects a full existential incorporation of a concept as part of one’s very being. The goal of transmission in this case is not simply one of cognitive knowledge but, even, existential experience. The one who is to learn about this event is to reach a goal of incorporating this knowledge, this existential knowledge, into his being as if he/she actually, personally, witnessed Ma’amad Har Sinai, actually saw and heard what happened on that mountain. There is no command for the student to learn about Sinai because such a goal is not an undertaking of a student. The seeing and hearing at Sinai was passive; it was the event itself that stamped its impression on Bnei Yisrael. Similarly, the obligation is upon the one who is transmitting the experience of Sinai to future generations to undertake a presentation that stamps the impression of this event on the future generation. This can only emerge from not forgetting, from maintaining a full, personal incorporation of the event in one’s being. It is the existential that is being transmitted here. The question still is, though, how do we actually develop and transmit this existential incorporation within our beings of Har Sinai?

            In Rabbi David Holzer, The Rav – Thinking Aloud on the Parsha, Sefer Shemos, Yisro, Gilui Shechinah in Our Times, in the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, we may find an approach toward understanding the essence of this command. The Rav describes what occurred at Har Sinai as an apocalyptic event of Giluy Shechinah, of a presentation of God’s Presence. This is simple to understand and it is this experience of Giluy Shechinah which we are commanded not to forget. What the Rav adds, though, is that this Giluy Shechinah is also to accompany our individual study of Torah. Limud HaTorah, the study of Torah, while, obviously, cognitive and of an intellectual nature, is to be much more that that. It is to be an experience with the Divine. It is to be of an existential nature, touching our very being. This command informs us that it is the obligation of the teacher, of the rebbi, to ensure that what is being taught is more than a lesson but it is to be a transmission of an experience of Giluy Shechinah that is then not to be forgotten.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 There are some authorities who maintain that, every day, one should recite the Torah verses instructing a person to remember these items. It is for this reason that certain Siddurim contain this listing of these verses.

2 As one may be wondering, the other five items are: the Exodus; Amalek’s Attack; the Golden Calf; Miriam’s Punishment; and Shabbat.  

3 This is not to say that the directive not to forget is not found in the other cases. It is actually found in some but, in those cases, always as secondary to the word zachor and the command to remember. In the case of Sinai we are only instructed not to forget.

4 See, further, Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, Translation to Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah, Devarim 4:9, footnote 54. One may also note that any reference to the obligation, in the Sefer Hamitzvot, regarding subsequent generations is framed in the negative while, in his Commentary on the Torah, Ramban uses positive language. We leave this issue, though, for the reader to pursue.  

5 Although a positive instruction of zachor is still different than a positive instruction to learn, its absence, perhaps, can again be noted in this context.

6 In English, this would be translated as “for this study of the faith of Torah is the study in the Torah”. As is often the case with translations, since these words do not truly transmit the ideas encompassed in the Hebrew, it was decided, in this case, to just present the Hebrew in the body of the Insight.

Nishma 2012


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