Saturday, February 22, 2020

Parashat Mishpatim: Discovery

Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim 2020
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Ma’amad Har Sinai was a once-in-existence experience of absolute revelation. Parashat Yitro’s detailed description of the sounds and lights of Sinai portrays the profound exposure to Am Yisrael at that time. Parashat Mishpatim’s account of Moshe’s ascension to receive the luhot, in contrast, depicts a scene of vagueness and obscurity. The people’s vision at the time that he departed was blurred by a “consuming fire” engulfed by an effacing cloud (Shemot 23:15-18).

The Hakhamim hinted at the opposite natures which underlay these two events, as well, in their retelling of the stories. Describing the people’s supernatural retention of every detail and particularity of the Torah at the time of its reception at Sinai,[1] the Rabbis contrarily described Moshe’s repeated “forgetting” of the Torah over the course of his forty-day rendezvous atop the mountain en route to receiving the luhot.[2]

While the importance of God’s revelation to an entire nation at Har Sinai is easily understood, His reason for presenting the luhot in the hidden atmosphere of clouds and forgetfulness requires an explanation.

Several years ago, one of my sons returned home from school with an assignment. He needed to interview a parent and record their memories of September 11th, 2001. I volunteered to be interviewed. Midway through my retelling of what happened on that day in my life, my wife passed by the room. She overheard my recollection and just couldn’t hold back. “I was together with Abba on that day,” she told my son, “and I need to correct a few details in his story.” I, in turn, dismissed her “corrections,” causing my son to look up at the two of us and confusedly ask, “So, which one of you is right?” Laughing at the absurdity of this all-too-typical situation, I explained to him the difference between “history” and “memory.” History must record the absolute and objective facts of an earlier time. Memory, however, is the reflective state of reliving that time as it was then experienced and subsequently understood. “Your assignment is not to research the history of 9/11,” I explained to my son, “but rather to record the memory of one of your parents.” And for that both my wife and I were “right.”

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi relatedly noticed that the Rabbis of the Talmud were uninterested in recording history. Neglecting an account of post-biblical history, they showed no effort to preserve even that which had taken place in the ages immediately prior to their own. He furthermore noted that the Hakahamim’s retelling of biblical events demonstrates a certain indifference to history, as well, as they “seem to play with Time as though with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will.” In the Rabbis’ eyes, Adam instructed his son Shet in the Torah, Shem and Ever established a bet midrash, and the forefathers institute the three daily tefilot. “Classical rabbinic literature was never intended as historiography,” Yerushalmi explained, “Instead they were engrossed in an ongoing exploration of the meaning of the history bequeathed to them, striving to interpret it in living terms for their own and later generations.”[3] The Hakhamim thus turned their focus from retelling the facts of history to articulating its meaning in memory.

Stretching beyond the realm of history and memory, however, blotting out certain objective realities and past precedents from our thoughts may aide our own perception and creativity. Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahaneman and Amos Tversky realized that what people remember about the past is likely to warp their judgment of the future. “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that would cause it to occur,” they wrote. Kahaneman likewise remarked, regarding the study of memory, “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”[4]

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks recalled once rummaging through his old notebooks and finding that many of the thoughts he had recorded in them were forgotten for years, later revived by him and reworked as new. He realized a positive aspect to those “forgettings,” suggesting that “creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.” [5] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l would likewise instruct his students to ignore their notes from past classes on the material they were then learning. He was forcing them to creatively engage with the text from an unbiased vantage point, free of any preconceived perspective or thought.[6]

“R. Yohanan said: Initially, Moshe would study Torah and forget it, until it was given to him as a gift” (Nedarim 38a). R. Yehezkel Landau z”l, the great 18th Century rabbi of Prague, explained the nature of that “gift” of Torah which Moshe received by referencing another statement of the Hakhamim: “Rava says: Initially the Torah is called by the name of the Holy One Blessed be He, but ultimately it is called by the name [of the one who studies it]” (Avodah Zarah 19a). R. Landau thus suggested that the “gift” of Torah bestowed upon Moshe was his ability to claim it “as his own.”[7] In light of our above analysis we might further suggest that Moshe could only acquire the Torah “as his own” by means of approaching it with the wide eyes and open mind of an individual whose previous knowledge and perspective were wiped clean through “forgetting.” It was his fresh and unprejudiced engagement with the Torah that allowed for his heart’s creative capacity to emerge from its dormancy, finding expression in the words of God.

By contrasting Moshe’s mysterious reception of the luhot to the clarity of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Torah shined light on the ideal engagement with its texts. It taught that its letters and words encompass a potential far greater than any static book of stories and law. The cloudy scene of Matan HaLuhot presented the Torah as an unimagined reality awaiting the creative discovery of all future seekers. It beckoned us to move beyond a mere reading of the Torah, encouraging us instead to dig deep and discover its depth.

[1] See Commentary of Rashi to Vayikra 25:1, s.v. be-har Sinai, and HaRambam’s Introduction to Commentary on Mishnah.
[2] Nedarim 38a.
[3] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle, WA, 1996), pg. 16-20.
[4] Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 194-195 and 129.
[5] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 108.
[6] See, e.g., R. Herschel Reichman’s recollection in Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jersey City, NJ, 2008), pg. 206-207.
[7] R. Yehezkel Landau, Siyun LeNefesh Hayah: Berakhot 64a. Note that R. Landau’s particular elaboration differs from our above extension.