Torah Study and Forgetfulness

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein







by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik









Torah Study and Forgetfulness

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"And He gave to Moshe, when He finished (ke-chaloto) speaking with him at Mount Sinai, the two Tablets of Testimony." (Shemot 31:18)


Rashi explains:


"The word 'ke-chaloto' is written without the 'vav' (ככלתו instead of ככלותו) – teaching that Torah was given over to Moshe like a bride (כלה) is given to a groom, for he could not learn all of it in such a short time."


What Rashi is saying is that no mortal – not even the greatest prophet and thinker – can learn the entire Torah in forty days. Therefore God ultimately hands over the Torah to Moshe as a gift before his descent to the nation.


Rashi's explanation is based on the midrash, but there the message is conveyed with a different emphasis:


"'He gave to Moshe' – Throughout the entire forty days that Moshe spent atop the mountain, he was learning Torah and forgetting it. He said to God, 'Master of the world – I have forty days, and I know nothing.' What did God do? When the forty days were up, God gave him the Torah as a gift, as it is written, 'He gave to Moshe.' Did Moshe then learn the entire Torah? [Surely not; as] it is written of the Torah, 'Its measure is longer than the land, and broader than the sea' (Iyov 11:9) – could Moshe then have learned it all in forty days? Rather, God taught Moshe the principles." (Shemot Rabba 41:6)


Moshe ascends the mountain in order to bring the Torah and teach it to Bnei Yisrael – but he cannot remember what he has learned. Each day he awakens to a new day of study, and each evening he is enveloped by the same feeling of frustration, as he becomes aware of all that he has forgotten. Every one of us is familiar with the experience of learning and learning, and ultimately discovering that we have not progressed as we had planned to. However, the message of the midrash is clear: despite the frustration that Moshe feels each day anew, he still returns each day to God's beit midrash; he doesn't give up and stop trying, but rather sits from morning until night, day after day, not eating or drinking, investing his whole self in his study. And in the end, the midrash tells us, he does indeed succeed in internalizing the Torah, which is given over to him as a gift.


The whole process of Moshe's ascent on Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Torah is supernatural, but even the supernatural often operates in natural ways, and we may propose an understanding of the "gift" that the midrash is talking about, which is different from the literal meaning. Moshe sits atop the mountain studying for forty days, believing that he is not taking in anything, but at the end of this process he discovers that in fact he knows the Torah. We might suggest that the "gift" mentioned in the midrash is not a complete gift; rather, what the text means to tell us is that Moshe discovers, at the end of his stay on the mountain, that during all the time that he was studying and thinking that he was remembering nothing, he was actually absorbing the Torah and its values, to some extent, unconsciously. If we relate this to our own experience, we are all familiar with the feeling of learning at yeshiva but not achieving all that we had wanted to. Still, is there anyone who, after a year or two years of yeshiva study, can really think that he has not progressed?


This explanation relates to another point raised by the midrash, and that is that Moshe received the Torah in its entirety. Moshe studies, and feels that he is not remembering the details of the commandments, and therefore God tells him the general principles of the Torah – explaining, in effect, that these concepts are what he will learn while on Mount Sinai, while the details will remain for him to study on his own, when he returns to the camp in the wilderness. Moshe thinks he is not remembering what he has learned, so God gives him, as a gift, the general principles, by means of which Moshe will be able to continue on his own, and eventually come to know all of the rest.


In a certain sense, this midrash is speaking out against the perceptions which place personal achievement at the center of life. The midrash is teaching us that beyond the knowledge, and the extent to which one attains it, what is important is the investment and the desire to know; in the wake of this, knowledge will come – in some measure as a gift from God. Another thing we learn from this midrash is that our orientation in learning while "atop Mount Sinai" – in the yeshiva – should focus on general principles and definitions, while all the other details can be studied when we descend and continue our lives in the regular world.


This midrash relates to another which talks about a laborer who is paid by his employer to carry water from one place to another in a bucket that leaks (Vayikra Rabba 19:2). The midrash says that a fool says to this laborer, "What is the point of you doing this? All the water is leaking!" Our midrash expresses the answer of someone who is wise: although the water is leaking, the laborer still receives wages for his work, and therefore he is not troubled. The same message is being emphasized: although a person does not feel that he is achieving that which that he had hoped or intended to achieve, and it seems that everything is being forgotten and disappearing, there is still value to his investment and effort in Torah, because of the reward.


Rav Soloveitchik z"l cited a different version of the end of the midrash (Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari z”l, vol. 1, p. 164), which I have not managed to locate: in it the wise person tells the fool that even though the water is leaking, the bucket is still getting cleaner. In other words, there is value to the learning itself, as an endeavor which cleanses and purifies a person's soul. Even without knowing all the details of the Torah, occupying oneself with its values and commandments ultimately purifies a person and brings him to higher levels of holiness and morality.


This perspective is also expressed in another well-known midrash which states that the Torah was given in the wilderness to teach us that anyone who seeks to acquire Torah must make himself like a wilderness: he must invest his whole self in his learning, nullifying his personal desires (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7). As we have explained, a person is required to have total, absolute commitment and dedication to Torah values and Torah study, and the midrash promises that if we invest ourselves as we should, the knowledge and memory will ultimately be granted to us as a gift from God – as happened to Moshe.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Ki Tisa 5765 [2005].)