World of the sages: Torah coursing through our veins

These 40 days, considered days of mercy, are auspicious for submitting prayers.

According to the Ashkenazi custom we begin selihot (prayers of supplication) this Saturday night. Sephardim have been saying selihot since the beginning of the month of Elul. The Sephardi custom is based on the tradition that Moses ascended Mount Sinai on the first of Elul to receive the second set of tablets. Moses spent 40 days atop the mountain, descending on Yom Kippur once the schism between God and His people had been mended (Tanhuma, Tisa 31 and parallels). These 40 days are therefore considered days of mercy, and are auspicious for submitting our prayers and supplications before the Almighty. With two new complete tablets in hand, we might wonder: What happened to the fragments of the first set of tablets? Were they left lying in the dust at the foot of Mount Sinai? The Talmud declares that the remains of the first tablets were placed in the holy ark together with the second tablets (B. Menahot 99a; B. Berakhot 8b). This conclusion is based on the verse "I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, that you smashed, and you are to put them in the ark" (Deuteronomy 10:2). The pronoun in this verse "them" most likely denotes the new set of tablets that the Bible is describing. It is also possible that the instruction refers to the first smashed tablets. It is this second reading that the Talmud adopts when it states the strongbox of the first tablets. Our sages, however, do not let the fragments linger in the ark. Drawing on the image of the broken pieces being accorded a place of honor, the Talmud continues: From here we learn that wise people who involuntarily forget their learning should not be treated disdainfully; such people should still be accorded honor. The link between scholars who cannot recall their Torah and the fragments of the first tablets is an interesting, but not necessary, comparison. We might be inclined to say that the first tablets were the handiwork of God and thus retained their sanctity even in their fragmented state. The uniqueness of scholars lies in the Torah they study; without this Torah their holiness may dissipate. In fact, another Talmudic passage may provide a more appropriate comparison. The Sages rule that a Torah scroll whose letters have been erased, and all that is left is the cream-white parchment, loses its sanctified status (B. Shabbat 116a). Perhaps this is the appropriate paradigm for Torah scholars who once had the words of Torah etched on their hearts, but now are more akin to blank sheets of parchment that exhibit no more than a faint shade of letters that once were. Just as the once-holy parchment loses the sanctity it gained when the scribe meticulously blotted the page with every word of the Torah, perhaps remiss Torah scholars who painstakingly delved into the depths of our tradition lose their holiness when they are no longer marked by the Torah they studied. We might offer an answer from an entirely different context, where one scholar asserts that an angel comes and reminds righteous people of all the Torah they studied (Tashbetz Katan, 13th-14th centuries, Germany). Although this does not refer to our passage, we can propose that wise people who forget their Torah must still be revered because at some time in the future they will be reminded of what they once knew. Once again these wise people will be the proud bearers of Torah knowledge, and as such they continue to command our respect. The comparison may be completed by referencing one scholar's suggestion that, one day, God will restore the first tablets to their former, unbroken state (Rama of Panu, 16th-17th centuries, Italy). This approach suggests an interesting paradigm: Honor is not only accorded on the basis of current status; great potential should also be considered. This may be particularly relevant to youth whose potential is yet to be realized. We may be tempted to treat youth irreverently in light of their lack of experience, yet this angle implies that they too deserve our respect. Furthermore, by showing regard for young people, we are more likely to instill a feeling of self-worth and confidence which will spur them to maximize their potential. Former chief rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) seems to suggest another approach to the comparison between fragments and scholars. In his commentary on this passage he implies that an encounter with Torah has two outcomes. The first and more obvious is the increase in knowledge that results from delving into the texts of our tradition, from creative readings of those texts and from exploring and expounding new ideas. These may be viewed as the details of the Torah study. A second, perhaps more important by-product of the experience of studying Torah is the indelible impression stamped on our lives. This deep-rooted and enduring imprint remains with us, even after we have forgotten the minutiae of a lecture or the nuances of the text. It is this lasting characteristic of Torah that commands our attention long after the details have been forgotten. Many of us find ourselves swept away by ideas we encounter when studying Torah, soon after forgetting what exactly it was that inspired us so. A lecture may have been stimulating, yet when we try to recall how the teacher weaved disparate sources we find ourselves at a loss. We seem to be left with mere broken fragments. Despite this natural tendency, we continue to carry with us the enduring impression of Torah study. As we grow older, details that we studied in our youth may become blurred, yet the overall experience of the Torah encounter remains vivid. In these days dedicated to attaining greater spiritual heights, the days when Moses sued for new tablets to replace the smashed originals, the Torah we learn continues to course through our veins, imbuing our fragmented existence with holiness. This indelible imprint cloaks the fragments of our memory, lending our lives an air of the divine. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.