As a child, I recall feeling frustrated while studying for tests. I would often fantasize about a pill that contained all the knowledge I needed for school. I would simply swallow it, and would then effortlessly possess all the information I needed, eliminating the need to study and ensuring that I ace all my tests.
The tendency to forget what we’ve learned is a universal disability and a common source of frustration. However, it can also be seen as a blessing. There are numerous things we are thankful to forget, such as experiences that caused us physical or emotional pain. Constantly revisiting episodes we would rather move past would be deeply distressing, even paralyzing. For the sake of our mental health, we actually need our memories to fail us, at least in certain aspects.
But why do we have to forget what we’ve learned and studied, particularly when it comes to the sacred words of the Torah? Wouldn’t it be best to absorb every word of the Torah and never lose anything we learned?
The second of two readings this week is the Torah portion of Bechukosai, which begins “If you walk in my statutes…” (Lev. 26:3). Rabbi Chaim ben Attar zt”l, known as the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh (Morocco, 1696-1743), wrote 42 insights on this one verse, and the first of the 42 addresses this question.
According to the Sages of the Midrash, the term “statutes” specifically refers to the challenging task of studying the Torah. But what is the connection between a statute and hard work? The obligation to study the Torah, he explains, encompasses even subjects we have already studied multiple times. A statute, or Chok in Hebrew, is a law we don’t fully comprehend but observe out of pure devotion to the law. Similarly, we study subjects we have already learned, even if we remember them. Just as one reads a love letter repeatedly or listens to a special song for the umpteenth time, the religious review of the Torah expresses our devotion to G-d’s law and our love for His thoughts and words.
The Ohr HaChayim adds that G-d intentionally designed human beings to forget so that they would have a desire and sense of accomplishment when reviewing their studies. Thus, the spiritual benefit of forgetfulness lies in always staying connected to G-d’s words and experiencing the joy of learning something new each time we review.