You Shall Forget! My Take on parashat Ki Tisa
How many of you complain about forgetting things?
We usually think about memory as a purely positive value and forgetfulness as a negative one.
It turns out that in Jewish tradition these two values are a bit more nuanced.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat “Ki Tisa”, we learn about Moses descending from Mt Sinai with the tablets of the covenant – Luchot Habrit – that were given to him by God. And as he makes it down to the bottom he encounters the children of Israel worshiping the עגל הזהב – the golden calf. Witnessing this scene, he throws down the tablets, smashing them at the foot of the mountain.
The rest of the Torah portion will focus on exploring how to repair this broken triangle between God – Moshe and the People of Israel.
As we continue reading we learn that a new set of tablets will be written by Moshe and the new and the broken one will be kept together in the ark.
In the Rabbinical literature, we see that the sages understood the inclusion of the first tablets in the ark as a divine endorsement of Moshe having smashed them. One of the Rabbis goes as far as saying that God said Yasher Koach, congratulated Moshe for breaking the tablets.
ואמר רבי (אליעזר) מאי דכתיב חרות על הלוחות אלמלי לא נשתברו לוחות הראשונות לא נשתכחה תורה מישראל
And, lastly, Rabbi Eliezer said: What is the meaning of that which is written:“And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16)? This teaches that had the first tablets not been broken, the Torah would never have been forgotten from the Jewish people, as the Torah would have been engraved upon their hearts.
Why do the Rabbis want us not to engrave the Torah upon our hearts? Why do they want us to forget?
This reminds me of “Funes the Memorious” a short story by the famous Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Funes was a young man who suffered a horseback riding accident and was hopelessly crippled. In this story, Funes tells Borges that, since his fall from the horse, he perceives everything in full detail and remembers it all. He remembers, for example, the shape of clouds at all given moments, as well as the associated perceptions of each moment.
In order to pass the time, Funes has engaged in projects such as reconstructing a full day’s worth of past memories (an effort which takes him another full day), and constructing a “system of enumeration” that gives each number a different, arbitrary name. Borges correctly points out to him that this is precisely the opposite of a system of enumeration, but Funes is incapable of such understanding. Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him”.
When dawn reveals Funes’s face, only 19 years old, Borges sees him “as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt”.
A couple of weeks later Borges finds out that Funes has died from “congestion of the lungs”.
Forgetfulness, explains Nietzsche, is not just something random that happens to us, but is rather the active ability to suppress, to which we owe the fact that we can simply live through, experience, take in….
It is to shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while… to make room for something new. That’s the benefit of active forgetfulness, like a doorkeeper or guardian of mental order : from which we can immediately see how there could be no happiness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.
If the words of Torah were all to be engraved in our hearts, there would be no renewal, there would be no discovery. It would be impossible to keep learning Torah. Forgetfulness is a central element that allows us to become seekers of a relationship. You can’t embrace what is stuck to you!
The rabbis foresee a risk in bearing a legacy engraved by the words of God: it would be something that can’t be carried by human hands, and we would become slaves of our own memory.
The rabbis further point out that the word “engraved” – Charut in Hebrew can also be read as Cherut, which means freedom. When the words of Torah come from חרות Cherut, freedom, then the legacy becomes sustainable.
We started our conversation saying that forgetfulness and memory are nuanced in Jewish tradition.
Ironically, the broken tables in the ark are actually a reminder that forgetfulness can be the spark of renewal, that creativity is born when we recognize brokenness, and that powerful relationships aren’t engraved but rather embraced with freedom.
As we celebrate this Shabbat of Parashat Ki Tisa, may we find the time to reflect on what are the memories that deprive us of the spark of renewal and which we need to let go. May we find the strength to revise what is not supposed to be engraved in our hearts so we can heal broken relationships and with fresh eyes take on new commitments.