This month, we will again celebrate the brief but joyous festival of Shavuot, which is described in our liturgy as “zeman matan Toratenu – the day on which the Torah was given.” It was on this day when our ancestors assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai and beheld the spectacle of Gd’s revelation and the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments. They would have heard the rest of the Torah, as well, if not for their having been terrified by the awesome display, leading them to ask Moshe to receive the rest of Gd’s commands privately, and then relay the information to them.
An Obligation to Remember
Forty years later, before his death, Moshe impressed upon the people the unique importance of remembering this seminal event. He commanded: “But guard yourself, and exercise extreme care for your soul, lest you forget the things which your eyes beheld, and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your grandchildren – the day when you stood before Hashem your Gd at Horev…” (Devarim 4:9-10).
In especially emphatic terms (“But guard yourself, and exercise extreme care for your soul”), Moshe warned the people that they must always remember and never forget the dramatic event of Ma’amad Har Sinai, Gd’s revelation at Mount Sinai.
Accordingly, the Ramban, in his critique of the Rambam’s listing of the 613 Biblical commands, asserts that these verses introduce a Torah obligation to remember these events. Following the well-established tradition that the expressions “hishamer” (“guard”) and “pen” (“lest”) imply a Biblical prohibition, the Ramban maintains that the Torah here forbids allowing ourselves to forget about Ma’amad Har Sinai, commanding us “not to remove it from our minds, and that instead our eyes and hearts must be there every day.”
The Ramban elaborates at great length in explaining the reason behind this command, focusing on the fact that our ancestors personally received direct communication from Gd, rather than hearing His word only secondhand, from a prophet. If the Torah had been given to us secondhand, the Ramban writes, then it could, conceivably, be subject to uncertainly and questioning. At some later point, a different prophet could come along, provide convincing proof that he received the word of Gd, and declare that the original set of laws that we received was faulty, based on errors. If the Torah from the outset had been communicated to us solely through a prophet, then we would have no reason to favor the original transmission of the Torah over a subsequent transmission via a different prophet. Therefore, the Ramban writes, it is a matter of vital importance that we remember Gd’s direct revelation to our ancestors, as it ensures our everlasting commitment to the Torah received at Sinai, protecting it from future challenges or revisions.
The Rambam’s Timeless Epistle
As mentioned, the Ramban advances this theory in his critique of the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot – listing of the Torah’s 613 commands. The Ramban claimed that the Rambam made a number of mistakes in compiling this list, including laws which do not constitute independent mitzvot, and omitting others that do. The Rambam does not include in his list of the mitzvot a command to remember the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai, and the Ramban objects, noting the aforementioned verses in which the Torah very emphatically demands that we never forget this event.
How would the Rambam respond to this challenge? It is possible that the Rambam does not require us to remember the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai each day? How would he then explain Moshe’s unequivocal demand that we always remember the Revelation?
In truth, the Rambam makes his view on this subject very clear, in a separate context – in one of his famous letters, known as Iggeret Teiman – Epistle to Yemen.
The Jewish community of Yemen turned to the Rambam for help as they struggled against mounting pressure from Muslim tribes to abandon their faith, and a false prophet who arose and claimed that he had been sent to introduce substantial emendations to Jewish law. In 1273/4, the Rambam penned a letter reaffirming and reinforcing the traditional beliefs of Judaism, in order to strengthen the Yemenite Jewish community in their struggle against the forces of apostasy.
In this letter, the Rambam places great emphasis on the Revelation, and, citing the aforementioned verses, implores the community to teach their children about this event. Like the Ramban, the Rambam writes that the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai constitutes the foundation of our faith, emphasizing that the perpetuation of its memory safeguards the Jewish Nation against subsequent challenges to its beliefs and principles. Quite explicitly, then, the Rambam, like the Ramban, acknowledges the vital importance of remembering the Revelation at Sinai as part of the effort to solidify Jewish faith, avoid any doubts or uncertainties, and resist any challenges.
We must wonder, then, why does the Rambam not list this command as one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot?
The answer becomes clear upon a more careful reading of the Rambam’s remarks to the people of Yemen, and their contrast with the Ramban’s comments.
The Ramban, as discussed, sees the Revelation as safeguarding our belief in the Torah’s authenticity and eternal relevance. The Rambam, however, goes further, depicting this event as “the pillar around which our faith revolves.” For the Rambam, all of Jewish faith is affirmed by Ma’amad Har Sinai. It reinforces and safeguards our belief not only in the authenticity of the Torah, but also in Gd’s existence, and it was then when the entire nation beheld a prophetic vision and clearly experienced Him. According to the Rambam, then, remembering the Revelation is of critical importance not only for the particular belief in the eternal immutability of the Torah, but also for our belief in Gd Himself.
This easily explains why the Rambam does not allocate a separate mitzvah for the obligation to remember the Revelation at Sinai. The Rambam already lists as the very first of the Torah’s 613 commands the obligation to believe in Gd – an obligation introduced as the first of the Ten Commandments pronounced at Sinai: “I am Hashem your Gd who took you out of the land of Egypt…” Remembering the Revelation is crucial as a way to safeguard this belief, but it does not need to be listed as a separate command, because we are already commanded to firmly belief in Gd’s existence.
Remembering the Details
One question, however, remains.
The Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot (3:8) appears to advance a much different understanding of Moshe’s warning not to forget “the things that your eyes beheld” at the time of the Revelation. According to the Mishnah, this command forbids us from forgetting our Torah knowledge:
“Whoever forgets one thing from what he had learned, he is considered by the verse as though he risks his life, as it says, ‘But guard yourself, and exercise extreme care for your soul, lest you forget the things which your eyes beheld.’”
The Mishnah infers from this verse that we are bidden to remember not the event of the Revelation, but rather the content of the Torah presented at that event. We must make every effort to remember every piece of Torah material that we are privileged to study, and never allow ourselves to forget even a single detail.
Does this Mishnah not contradict both the Rambam and Ramban’s understanding of this verse, that it introduces a command to remember the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explains that these interpretations of the verse are, in fact, one and the same. If we would fully recognize, appreciate and internalize the eternal significance of the Revelation, then we would never forget any of the content presented to us at that time. If Matan Torah meant as much to us as it should, then we would be incapable of forgetting the details. If we understood the centrality of the Torah in Jewish life, then every piece of information we absorb would be forever cherished and never lost.
Of course, it cannot be reasonably expected of any of us to achieve the level where we never forget any words of Torah. We all have our limitations, and we will not retain every piece of information. We can, however, strive – especially this month, as we celebrate the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai – to enhance our appreciation of the importance of Torah, of the precious value of every verse, of every halachah, of every insight, and of every commentary. The observance of Shavuot must remind us of the inestimable worth and sanctity of Torah, and lead us to recommit ourselves to not only seize every opportunity we have to learn, but also appreciate its importance so that we treasure every piece of information that we imbibe.
Let us try to avoid the all-too-common mistake of making this holiday all about scrumptious dairy dishes and desserts, or turning it into a “long weekend.” Let us instead reflect upon the fact that on this day, for the only time in human history, Gd revealed Himself to a people to give them His guide for living a life of spiritual meaning, and for building a close bond with Him. If we take advantage of this unique celebration to enhance our appreciation of the value of Torah, we will, please Gd, emerge from Shavuot with a fierce, passionate commitment to rigorously apply ourselves to its study, and to live by its profound wisdom, each day of our lives.