The gift and the mitzvah of memory
TorahParshat Bechukotai

The gift and the mitzvah of memory

Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34

(File photo)
(File photo)

Our memory: a beautiful gift we treasure, and pray that, G-d forbid, it shouldn’t begin to fade.

Many of us have had the experience bumping into someone we supposedly know well yet we cannot recall who in the world they are. Or, on the flip side, meeting an old friend from high school decades later and remembering their name and their hobbies.

If memory is crucial in life in general, it is certainly important in our Judaism. We might even say that remembering is actually the most important subject to the Jewish nation.

Next week we’ll be celebrating Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, and traditionally refers to two aspects of the Torah. One is the “Written Torah,” namely the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the sacred Writings. Then there is the “Oral Torah,” which refers to an entire body of explanations, traditions and interpretations that were not meant to be committed to writing (that would actually have been considered sinful). Instead, this body of knowledge would have to be committed to memory and transmitted orally from generation to generation. When the Torah was given, every Jew from young to old was recruited for that sacred mission.

But how do we do that? Our sages offer several methods and techniques for remembering Torah.

Repetition: In the Shema that we recite every day, the Torah commands us to teach the Torah to our children. But the phrase that the Torah uses is “Veshinantam Levanecha.” The root of the word Veshinantam is “shanen,” which means to “repeat,” thus instructing us to teach by repetition. The Torah is telling us that in order to remember the Torah, every parent must repeat it to their children again and again.

The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 99a) tells us that “one who studies but doesn’t review is like one who sows but doesn’t reap” — meaning, without repetition, all the person’s studying was in vain and that ultimately, the material studied will be forgotten.

Stories: The Torah wasn’t given to us to be a dry book of rules, with each line containing one law after another. Rather, much of the Torah was written in the form of a story.

For example, when the Torah elaborates on the story of Joseph and his brothers, it emphasizes the gravity of brotherly hatred. Another example: To express the gravity of the sin of idol worship, G-d did not only instruct us “You shall not make for yourselves any graven image …” but all the details of the Golden Calf fiasco are also recounted, as well as the negative results that stemmed from it.

Song: Picture the scene: You’re sitting at services and the cantor begins reciting a prayer. Some people are familiar and join along, while others do not. Then it comes to Aleinu and everyone jumps up and joins along. Why is that? Because we’re accustomed to singing it, and we therefore remember it.

One of the main reasons for the trop system in Torah reading is to essentially turn the entire Torah text into one giant song, which makes it easier to remember.

Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion of Bechukotai.

The Chassidic masters explain that the root word of Bechukotai is also related to chakika, which means “engraving,” as in etching words into stone.

Accordingly, the lesson is that just like an engraved letter becomes an inseparable part of the stone, so too must the Torah become engraved in our hearts until it becomes inseparable from our personalities.

But how do we accomplish that? How do we remember it and cause the Torah to be engraved into our heart and mind? That happens when we go beyond the intellectual study and engage in creative ways to constantly remember the Torah and find ways to connect with it. It can be hands-on learning, stories, songs, repetition or any other way which will allow Torah study to become part of our emotional experience — thus, ensuring it will never be forgotten. PJC

Rabbi Mendy Schapiro is the director of Chabad of Monroeville. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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