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"To Make Them Forget Your Torah"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Summarized by Aviad Hacohen Translated by Kaeren Fish

The crisis of Chanuka and the miracle which followed it turn on the following phrase in the "Al Ha-nissim" prayer:

"In the days of Matityahu ben Yochanan (the Hasmonean High Priest) and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece conquered Your nation, Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to divert them from the laws of Your will..."

Herein lay the real crisis, and this is where the story began. We may ask, what distinction is there between "forgetting Your Torah" (or, as according to the Rambam, "to make the Torah forgotten among them"), and "diverting them from the laws of Your will?"

There are those who have tried to prove that these two phrases both refer to the same process, but that the object of the process is different. The first expression refers to Torah in its totality, while the second refers to something more specific: the "laws" (chukim), i.e., those problematic norms which we find difficult to understand. Others maintain that "to forget Your Torah" means that the actual knowledge is forgotten, while "to divert them from the laws of Your will" refers to the practical domain - the fulfillment and execution of the commandments.

I believe that we need to examine these phrases in a different light, treating the "forgetting" and "diversion" as fundamentally different processes rather than just differentiating between the object of the forgetting or diversion. This view is grounded in a well-known verse in parashat Va'etchanan (Devarim 4:9):

"Only guard yourself and guard your soul well, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life, and you shall inform your children and your children's children of them."

And the Torah continues and specifies:

"The day on which you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev, when God said to me, 'Gather the nation before Me and I shall declare My words to them, which they shall learn - to fear Me all the days they live upon the earth, and they shall teach their children.'"

Two concepts are mentioned here: forgetting the things "which your eyes have seen," and their departure from the heart. The difference between these two concepts lies in two different characteristics and - at the same time - in two processes. The Ramban emphasized the significance of this verse in terms of both philosophy and pure halakha, both in his Commentary on the Torah and in his enumeration of those laws which - to his view - the Rambam had omitted from his Book of Mitzvot. The Ramban believes that this verse contains two commandments, one negative and the other positive:

"... In my opinion, the Torah is presenting here a negative commandment which we have to be very careful with, for now that God has told us to take care with all the mitzvot and to keep all the laws and statutes to fulfill them, He repeats: 'I strongly warn you to be careful and to guard yourselves very, very strongly in order to remember from where you received the mitzvot,' so that the Sinaitic experience not be forgotten among all the things which you saw there - the sounds and the fire, and God's majesty and grandeur, and His words which you heard there from within the fire. And you must inform your children and your children's children - for all time - of all the things which your eyes saw in that elevated experience. What this means is that God made the experience what it was in order that you would learn to fear Him your whole lives, and that you would teach your children for all generations - 'Hence do this, and do not do that.' And before God mentions the commandments which were said at that time (i.e., later on in parashat Va'etchanan), He warned them with a negative commandment - that we should not forget anything of that experience, and that we should not allow it to depart from our hearts forever. And He commanded a positive command - that we should inform our descendants, from generation to generation, of all that took place there - all that we saw and heard."

The Ramban explains that a great benefit stands to be gained from this mitzva:

"For if the words of the Torah had come to us merely from Moshe, even though his prophecy was confirmed by signs and wonders, then if a prophet or dreamer would arise among us and command us the opposite of [what is written in] the Torah and provide us with a sign [supporting his words] then some doubt would enter people's hearts. But since the Torah came to us from God Himself to our ears and our eyes that saw it, there is [now] no possibility of denying it. Anyone who disagrees or doubts will not find our support. No sign or wonder will help him or save him from death at our hands, because we recognize his falsehood."

Hence in the opinion of the Ramban there is both a mitzva to remember the national gathering at Sinai and to transmit this legacy to the following generations. The point of it is to counter anyone who doubts or denies, and to inculcate faith in our consciousness.

Aside from this benefit as elaborated by the Ramban, I believe that we can find another reason. The Ramban explains the reason for the mitzva with an important but "external" justification: the erection of a wall against the various doubters and deniers, a remedy for those who scoff at the Torah's words. The mitzva serves as a shield of sorts against these attacks. However, there is also a positive aspect to the mitzva of remembering Sinai. Not only avoiding damage, but also a sharpening and deepening and enrichment of the Torah tradition from the point of view of our relationship with the Torah and its Giver. The Sinaitic experience was characterized by two elements. One was the giving of the Torah itself, the transmission of the message, the contents, the mitzvot and bodies of halakha. But there was also another element. In the Hagada of Pesach we recite: "If He had drawn us close to Mt. Sinai and had not given us the Torah - it would have been sufficient! (Dayenu!)" Sufficient? Would it really have been sufficient for us to walk to Sinai and then to leave empty-handed? Without the Torah, what possible significance could there have been to that experience?

The answer is clear. Even if we were to imagine that our encounter with the Divine Presence at Sinai would still leave us without Torah and mitzvot, the experience itself - the revelation of God with all its ramifications - was a powerful and far-reaching experience in its own right, and one which would have been sufficient to bring us close to the Shekhina (Divine Presence) and to enrich us spiritually. Hence, if we wish to remember Mt. Sinai then we must remember two things: that which we received - Torah and mitzvot - as well as the context in which it was received. We are cautioned and commanded not only to remember and study the Torah which we received, but to relive that day and that experience each day and for all generations.

Now, if we were speaking of forgetfulness ("lest you forget") as opposed to the removal from our consciousness ("lest they be removed from your heart"), then we could say that each of these two concepts refers to one of the two aspects discussed above. Forgetfulness would pertain to the substance of the Torah, while removal from our hearts would refer to the existential-experiential aspect, to the experience of Sinai itself - the darkness and the cloud.

But in reality we are required to fulfill both tasks, both in relation to the contents and in relation to the experience. On one hand, we are required not only to prevent the experience from being removed from our hearts, but also to prevent it from being forgotten. On the other h, the actual contents of the Torah may also not be removed from our consciousness.

We do not mean hereby, Heaven forfend, to separate in any way between the conceptual-abstract contents of the Torah and their experiential-existential aspect - our connection to the Torah and to God. We may speak of Sinai as a twin experience, but ultimately we perceive the entire multifaceted event as a single and unified entity, in which the theoretical-study theme - the receiving of the substance, its reception and absorption - goes hand-in-hand with the extraordinary experience of that wonderful and wondrous event.

As mentioned, in relation to the two aspects which represent the two sides of that same coin, we are commanded both "not to forget" and "lest they be removed from your hearts." Forgetfulness - as attested to by the disappearance of the substance, a fading of the facts and a weakening of our full control over bodies of Torah information - is a serious phenomenon in its own right. Someone who understands the value of Torah attempts continually to retain full and fresh control of every aspect of Torah. But forgetfulness is a natural and expected phenomenon.

In any event, from the point of view of the spiritual loss which it entails, forgetfulness is nothing beside the terrible "removal from the heart." The gemara in Shabbat 138b states:

"Our Rabbis taught - When our Sages entered Kerem Be- Yavneh they said: The Torah is destined to be forgotten from among Bnei Yisrael, as it is written (Amos 8:11): "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord God, when I shall let hunger loose upon the earth - not a hunger for bread and not thirst for water, but rather to hear the words of God..." and it is written, "and they shall wander from sea to sea and will stumble from the north to the east to seek God's word, and they shall not find it."

The 'word of God' refers to halakha; it refers to the secret of the ultimate redemption; it refers to prophecy. And what does the expression "they shall wander to seek God's word" mean? They said: In the future a woman will carry a piece of teruma and will walk from one synagogue to the next and from one beit midrash to another, asking whether her loaf is ritually pure or impure, and no one will be able to tell her."

Later on, the gemara explains that the halakhic question at stake concerned the ritual purity of the earthen vessel, which represented the source of the confusion as to the status of the teruma loaf. And despite the fact that later on the gemara quotes Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai - who said "God forbid that the Torah should be forgotten from among Bnei Yisrael! It is written, 'For it shall not be forgotten from the mouths of his descendants'" - nevertheless the literal meaning of the text indicates that Chazal accepted the fact that a situation would quite possibly arise whereby, God forbid, the Torah would be forgotten by Israel; that bodies of knowledge would disappear; and that there would be confusion with regard to the laws of ritual purity and impurity as well as other areas of halakha.

No matter how harsh this reality may seem, this situation is still bearable so long as these things have not been removed from the hearts. The woman who wanders from synagogue to beit midrash with a loaf of teruma in her hands, asking the Rabbis and judges what is to become of that loaf - and no one can tell her whether it has second-level or first-level impurity - this woman has forgotten the Torah, and the people to whom she turns have also forgotten it; but have the issues really become removed from their hearts? Has the existential, spiritual connection to the significance of this teruma, and its pure or impure status, really disappeared from their consciousness? This woman, in actual fact, reveals a profound connection to the world of teruma and the laws of ritual purity to the extent that she wanders among the synagogues and study halls with the aim of seeking, in some forgotten corner, the one teacher who may not have forgotten. This woman, wandering in the streets and marketplaces to find God's word the way others seek water and bread, feels all the way in the depths of her soul the connection to and need for God's word. For her, that piece of teruma is significant to the point of being a matter of life or death. So long as this is the situation, then even if - God forbid - the Torah is forgotten from amongst Israel, the spiritual future and existential status of Knesset Yisrael is assured.

If, Heaven forbid, the day should arrive when these things are "removed from the hearts" - a day on which the synagogues and study halls are full of students of halakha and authorities familiar with the tiniest details of the laws pertaining to earthenware vessels and fully able to answer any question which may arise concerning their purity, but caring little as to the fate of the piece of teruma being carried from one beit midrash to the next by this simple woman - then Knesset Yisrael is indeed in very serious spiritual and existential danger. To forget what has been learned - that is serious. But if we forget "the things which your eyes have seen" and their existential and spiritual significance, the connection to God which follows upon the Sinai experience, then we are faced with a crisis with no promise of remedy.

The spiritual crisis which visited Knesset Yisrael at the time of the Greeks and Hellenists can be characterized by two principal elements. The Greeks certainly understood the significance of Torah for Knesset Yisrael, and how it distinguishes and sanctifies the nation, making it holy. The battle of Greek culture against eternal concepts of holiness, against Divine service on the transcendental level, was waged against our grasp of Torah knowledge itself - "to make them forget Your Torah."

But the Greeks and Hellenists understood that ultimately they had not yet ensured their future and their victory. They perceived that their efforts needed to be directed not only against the arena of the beit midrash, on the level of pure learning and knowledge, but also towards an attempt to "remove the issues from the hearts," to wean Israel away from "the laws of Your will" - not just in terms of their understanding and knowledge of the substance, but also in terms of their connection to it. At the time, Knesset Yisrael knew how to stand their ground and fight for the essence of their very lives. They kept in mind the command with which they had been entrusted: "Guard yourself and guard your soul well lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen and lest they be removed from your hearts all the days of your lives." Knesset Yisrael knew to fight not only for the knowledge but also for the existential connection. The people ensured not only that the substance would not be forgotten but also that no breach would be tolerated; and that apathy with regard to Divine service would have no place among them.

The words of the "Al Ha-nissim" prayer clearly refer to past events and to the nation as a whole. But they bear great significance in the present; and to the individual as well. We all remember the mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:8):

"Rabbi Dostai bar Yanai said in the name of Rabbi Meir: Anyone who forgets a single detail of all his learning - the Torah regards him as deserving of the death penalty, as it is written, 'Only guard yourself and guard your soul well lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen.' But if he forgot against his will (takfa alav mishnato) would this still apply? Hence we learn, 'and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life.' In other words, he is deserving of death only when he sits and removes them from his heart."

What does the text mean by "sits and removes them from his heart?" Is it possible that we are referring to someone who makes a deliberate attempt to disconnect himself from that which he has learned and absorbed? Clearly not. We are speaking here of someone who, out of apathy and lack of grounding, because oa severance and dilution of his spiritual and existential connection with Torah, has allowed it slowly and gradually to become removed from his heart, to become distanced from him. For this - and not for the forgetting itself - the mishna holds him responsible. The loss of the vital connection, the dilution of his spiritual bond and the removal from his heart - this is what makes him deserving of death.

Certainly, there is a stage which precedes the removal from the heart. In order for something to become removed from the heart it has to have entered it in the first place. Only once something has been absorbed and internalized and the person has achieved the vital connection must he take care not to allow that connection to fade; only then must he take care to renew it lest his ignoring it and immersing himself in other matters lead it to disappear and himself to become disconnected from it.

Hence a far more serious threat is posed by a situation in which the issues were never properly internalized in the first place; they never filled his soul or addressed his essence. Yes, he did sit and learn. He got up each morning and went off to his shiur. But ultimately it's just not there in his heart; Torah does not preoccupy him or give him cause for thought. From an existential point of view, Torah is not rooted in his consciousness, but rather exists somewhere 'out there.' He does what he has to do, he sits and learns - and we have no complaints in this regard. Sometimes he even remembers what he learns. But the Torah is not the center and focus of his existence. His Divine service is merely a framework; not the focal point of his being. At times, there is a difference and a distance between what he DOES and what he IS.

The great challenge facing a "ben Torah" is that he both learn and ensure that his learning is inculcated in his heart, that he is vitally connected, with every part of his being, to the world of Divine service - a service which is not mere framework but rather substance. It is only then that we can begin to hope that Torah will be neither forgotten nor removed from his heart.

The task before each Yeshiva qua yeshiva, and each student qua student, is not an easy one and it must be addressed conscientiously and honestly. "True, I am sitting in the beit midrash because that is the task before me during my stay in yeshiva, and this is my daily schedule. But do the words of Torah never depart from my heart because they never entered it, or am I building myself up as an "eved Hashem" (servant of God), as a "ben Torah" who from his very depths perceives himself as being connected with every fiber of his being and soul to the world of Torah, to service of Hashem and to fear of Heaven?"

The statement is relatively easy to compose and to mouth, but its fulfillment is quite difficult - perhaps because at times his true commitment cannot be ascertained so long as the person sits in the yeshiva. Often, there is a process of delusion: since the student rocks backwards and forwards for hours on end in front of his gemara, his Rabbis and peers - and even more so, he himself - all believe that they have before them a true "ben Torah" and "ben Yeshiva." If he fails to make a concerted effort, on every existential level, to connect himself and to open the gates of his heart to Torah and to Divine service, then the day will come, once he has moved on to another framework and a different daily routine, when it will become clear that it was all simply a role that he played. As a diligent and devoted person he fulfilled his part, but did not fulfill himself. Then, it will become clear that the things which really interested him were a bit of a career, a bit of family life, a bit of politics, a bit of football, a little dabbling on the stock exchange, etc.

Woe to such a person, "for he is deserving of death," in the words of the mishna, and that is ultimately where he is headed. From time to time we attack the secular sector of society for being up in arms over certain actions taken by foreign regimes, while at the same time themselves performing actions on their own home territory which are no less serious. We object, and rightly so, to the fact that the Israeli newspapers carry caricatures of religious Jews which, were they to appear in the "New York Times," would have the whole Jewish population of the city - and Jews all over the world - rioting in protest. Here, journalists permit themselves the liberty. There, they know, it's part of the Jewish sense of national pride - the tallit and tefillin are also part of the battle. Here the tallit and tefillin are worth nothing.

At the same time, we must ask ourselves, honestly and painfully, whether we too are not sometimes guilty of the same thing. Do we not on one hand tend to become enraged by the actions of a regime which is leading to Torah being forgotten and to severance from the "laws of God's will," while on the other hand, out of passivity and apathy, not doing enough to prevent the forgetting and - even more seriously - the removal from the hearts?

Our principal goal, on the personal and yeshiva level, must be the absorption of the substance of Torah. We must know how to answer that woman when she appears, loaf of teruma in her hand, inquiring as to its ritual status. We have to know all the details of the halakha, and aim to master all of Torah. But at the same time, we have to understand that this aspiration, with all its richness and power, is bound up with an existential connection which is meant to fill the heart and enrich the soul. We have to ensure that Torah enters our hearts and not just our minds; then it will not become removed. The Torah must be actively remembered; then it will not be forgotten. Thereby we shall succeed in fulfilling with regards to ourselves the wonderful task of continuing the tradition and will pass the message onwards to the future generations: "And you shall inform your children and your children's children ..."

(This sicha was originally delivered on Chanuka 5753 [1992])


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