About 18 months ago I gave a sermon about Deuteronomy 10:1-2 and Menachot 99a:12. I want to talk about this thought provoking text again today because I want to reflect on the centrality of texts to my life.
Rav Yosef teaches a baraita: This verse teaches that both the tablets of the Covenant and the pieces of the broken tablets are placed in the Ark. One should learn from here that with regard to a Torah scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control, e.g., illness, one may not behave toward him in a degrading manner.
When I wrote in my thought for the week about learning and how the writings of the rabbis had become central to my rabbinate it was not to idealise every word they said and that is recorded in their name, but to recognise that in Judaism we have a conversation that has evolved over millenia – it is a conversation that seeks to understand the holy in the mundane.
Menachot reminds us that the rabbis no longer had the two tablets – either the first or the second – to venerate or place in their holy arks. The Torah scroll was no real substitute for stone inscribed by God.
And that is where the Jewish conversation starts to get interesting. A sage who forgets his learning…
Now a sage, a talmid chacham, was clearly the inner circle of the rabbinic community. We’re hearing in this text the way in which the rabbinic class expected its own to be treated. And I suppose there is a problem because it venerates the talmid chacham and we might ask – what about everyone else who is a ‘beinoni’ (an in-betweener) like you and me – not a sage and not an ignoramus? To which I would say, good! Now you’re getting the hang of the Jewish conversation.
Our sage, if we might continue listening to our text and conversing with our text, is mentioned immediately following Rav Yosef. Now what can I tell you about Rav Yosef – well first of all he was a greatly knowledgeable figure in the Talmud. He was known as ‘Sinai’ (like some other sages) – his knowledge was so great of Torah it was like he was Sinai itself. It was because of this incredible knowledge that he was invited to become the head of the Babylonian yeshiva in Pumbedita. He declined and let his study partner Rabbah take the senior position. Now it starts to get even more interesting – he’s known as a Sinai character yet in his old age he became blind through illness and he is still a great scholar. And then this happens – as recounted in the Nedarim 41a:4:
The Gemara relates: Rav Yosef himself fell ill and his studies were forgotten. Abaye restored his studies by reviewing what he had learned from Rav Yosef before him. This is the background for that which we say everywherethroughout the Talmud, that Rav Yosef said: I did not learn this halakha,and Abaye said to him in response: You said this to us and it was from this baraita that you said it to us.
This is a stunningly poetic vignette of a student-teacher relationship. Here we have Abaye, Rav Yosef’s student listening to his teacher ‘Sinai’ forgetting everything that he has ever learnt. And instead of lowering him in esteem, Abaye continues to study with him and in fact – to Abaye’s credit – everything that Rav Yosef has forgotten is recalled because of his student’s diligence. And then we get the moment that any of us who have sat with someone with memory problems has encountered – Rav Yosef says something that is just not ‘true’ – that it was not part of his Sinaitic knowledge. Rav Yosef is a broken set of tablets.
Two distinct places in the Talmud are now woven together.
How does the rabbinic community expect to treat its own when they have forgotten their learning? It’s not a hypothetical case – Rav Yosef has just said that the broken tablets are place in the ark alongside the new set based on a verse in our Torah portion this morning. And Rav Yosef was less than whole in his old age – so if he’s telling us that the broken Sinai revelation was also placed in the holy ark we should also treat him in the same way…and hence we do not treat him with disrespect because we raise up in holiness and never lower.
But now you might ask – what if the memory loss was not unavoidable or due to illness? Ah dear friends now you’re getting the hang of the Jewish conversation! And how do we understand not to treat with disrespect – what is respect? Yes these are good questions.
You see David de Lange, whom I mention in my Thought for the Week, had the brilliant idea that a child at their Bar/Bat mitzvah is touched by an angel who makes them perfect on the day (whatever perfect means) and then they forget everything and have to start learning again. David de Lange z’l, does something beautiful – he first of all allows the wonder of a child becoming 13 to be magical and full of the confidence of youth ‘knowing everything’ and then he says your journey of learning now starts. To be an adult is to learn anew as if you learnt nothing for your Bar or Bat Mitzvah and it is a mitzvah or as if you forgot everything.
David de Lange’s angel who caused a child to forget all knowledge, is not what afflicts Rav Yosef, but it’s the same result regardless. And Rav Yosef because it’s been his habit for a lifetime to study, continues to study. This is our sacred conversation and it can frame our lives and challenge, provoke, sadden, inspire and anger us – but the heritage of the Jewish conversation never goes away, we just might not be part of it, which would be a great shame.
This teaching about Rav Yosef – I know it touched some of you last time I taught it in February 2018. Though it was only part of a general idea of raising up in holiness and I didn’t give you the biography of the sage. The idea of forgetting – of dementia is something many of us are living with. And frailty and illness is also something that so many of us are coming to terms with. Even when we’re angry with the situation or with God (yes, indignation with a Jobian lot is quite reasonable I think), we must have a sense of the holiness of the soul of every person. We are in the image of God, but we are also reflections of what we do with our lives – that’s where the holiness comes in, how we have conducted ourselves and treated others. We must never allow a diminishment in that holiness. For that is what sets each of us apart in our life – what makes us holy and how we act as a community towards everyone in these circumstances is how we ‘מעלין בקודש’ (raise up in holiness).