Friday, February 2, 2018

Parashat Yitro: Memories

A Message for Parashat Yitro 2018
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Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living. (Daniel Kahneman)[1]

The Hakhamim noticed a peculiar wording in the initial description of Ma’amad Har Sinai:

In the third month from the Exodus of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at Midbar Sinai. (Shemot 19:1)

Am Yisrael’s arrival “on this day” is difficult to understand. The Torah seemingly addresses its future readers by stating that the arrival took place on the very day that they are then experiencing. But how is that possible? After all, the text can be read on any day of the year! The Rabbis therefore suggested that these words teach the important principle that, “The words of Torah should be new to you as if it was given today.”[2]

The Hakhamim detected a similar message in keriat shema’s command, “And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart” (Devarim 6:6). They explained: “They should not be in your eyes like an old edict…but rather like a new one towards which everybody runs.”[3] There exists, however, a significant difference between these two statements of the Rabbis. Whereas “these words” of the shema refer to the content of Torah (“these words”), the verse relating to Har Sinai specifically refers to the arrival at the mountain.[4] What is the importance of the “arrival at Midbar Sinai”? And why must we continuously reexperience it?

I believe that the findings of the well-known psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman may lay the necessary groundwork for understanding this passage. Kahneman distinguished between our experiencing self and remembering self. He explained that in the context of a painful experience, the experiencing self provides the answer to, “Does it hurt now?” while the remembering self can retrospectively answer, “How was it, on the whole?”

Kahneman found that our memories of events often redefine the detailed experience. He demonstrated how our “takeaway” from an extended experience is often distilled to a single moment of supreme importance. And although that instant might run counter to the rest of the experience, it will nonetheless define the memory. He recalled, for example, when someone once described listening to a long symphony on a disc that was scratched near the end. The person remarked that the shocking sound at the close of the symphony, “ruined the whole experience.” Kahneman noted the mistake: “The experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it.” The listener had allowed his memory – defined by a single moment – to drastically redefine a 40-minute experience of musical bliss.[5]

The demand that we constantly relive the arrival at Sinai wrestled with the difficulties entailed in recalling the many details of an experience. Our attempt to remember every aspect of Ma’amad Har Sinai would inevitably lead us into the trap of fixation on a specific commandment or a particular emotion that we felt at that time. The demand therefore guides us towards an appropriate memory of receiving the Torah.

The implicit instruction of “On this day they arrived at Midbar Sinai” divorces the memory from the words spoken and messages imparted, and allows us to singularly focus on Am Yisrael’s rendezvous with God at that time. It enables us to hone in on the defining moments of intense anticipation leading up to the event and to appreciate the ensuing bond that was established between God and His people at that time.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 381.
[2] Tanhumah Yashan 7:13. Cited by Rashi to Shemot 19:1, s.v. ba-yom.
[3] Sifrei 33. Cited by Rashi to Devarim 6:6, s.v. asher. See, as well, Commentary of Rashi to Devarim 26:16 s.v. ha-yom.
[4] Noted by R. Yeruham Levovitz z”l in Daat Torah: Shemot (Jerusalem,. IS, 2001), pg. 183-4.
[5] Kahneman, ibid.