For the Sin of Neglect
Adapted by Rav Dov Karoll
Parashat Haazinu, which we will read on Shabbat Shuva, describes how God provides the Jewish people with their physical needs, while the people of Israel forget God and worship idols.
He made him ride on the high places of the earth, and he ate the produce of the fields; and he made him suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock… But Yeshurun became fat, and kicked … then he forsook God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger… You are unmindful of the Rock that fathered you, and have forgotten God who formed you. (Devarim 32:13-18)
The last of these verses states, "You are unmindful of the Rock that fathered you, and have forgotten the God Who formed you," linking the forgetting of God and the turning to idolatry. A verse in Yirmiyahu, however, considers this same twin violation as two separate infractions: "For my nation has doubly wronged Me; they have abandoned Me, the Source of the fresh, life-giving, waters, to dig themselves pits, broken pits, which cannot even retain water" (2:13). The prophet distinguishes between the abandonment of God and the turning to idolatry. Yet, presumably, one will only turn to idol worship if one forgets God. If one is eminently aware of God’s Presence, how could he possibly worship idols?
In Haazinu, the Jewish people sin out of a sense of satiation and complacency, at which point they do not feel dependent on God. Against this backdrop, the Torah writes, “And they forgot God who fashioned them... They provoked His jealousy by worshipping others.” The Torah warns against forgetting God and turning to idolatry in several other contexts as well (see, for instance, Devarim 4:23, 6:12, 8:11-14, 18-19). Moshe reminds the people not to forget God, whether out of physical complacency leading to haughtiness, or due to other factors that may cause one to forget. In place of these, what is the formula for the appropriate mindset? “Shivviti Hashem le-negdi tamid – I envision myself constantly positioned before God” (Tehillim 16:8). What we need to do is to constantly recall God’s Presence as being before us.
In the context of the opening verse of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage,” both the Ibn Ezra and the Kuzari speak of why the Exodus from Egypt is singled out rather than the creation of the world. They answer that the Exodus signifies not just God’s existence, but His Providence, His direct connection to, and involvement with, the people, and this is of greater significance at the Sinai revelation. Not only did God create the world, but He has a special relationship a particular group of people, and they are connected to Him.
The Ramban (Commentary on the Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, additional negative commandments, 2) counts the prohibition to forget the revelation at Sinai as a negative commandment. He asserts that we cannot allow the recollection of that revelation to leave our consciousness; rather, we should think about it all our days. He speaks not only of the factual recollection, but rather of the experiential, existential elements of the Sinai experience. Incorporating the lessons and experience of the revelation at Sinai into our lives, bearing that experience in mind, is central to recalling our connection to God.
The Mishna (Avot 3:8) states that anyone who forgets anything he learns is "liable with his very soul." The Mishna then qualifies this by asking: does this apply even if his continuing studies were too much for him to recall? The Mishna answers that, in such a case, the aforementioned harsh statement does not apply; he is only "liable with his soul" if he consciously removed his studies from his heart.
What is meant by "removing" one's studies from his heart? Does it mean that he literally acts to remove the memory from his consciousness? Perhaps it means that he does not make any effort to remember it.
Nonetheless, even if some active "removal" is required to reach the level of "being liable with his very soul," we must demand of ourselves a much greater consciousness of the word of God than simply not removing it from our hearts. On the contrary, we must make a conscious effort to assure that our Torah study remains with us.
When we speak of zikkaron, of remembering God, of fulfilling the charge, "And you shall remember the Lord your God" (Devarim 8:18), we are speaking of more than simply knowing the facts. An existential connection is implied as well.
On Rosh Ha-shana, we recite the prayer of Zikhronot, remembrances. The zikkaron spoken of there is certainly not merely factual recollection. For example, we introduce God's remembrance of Noach as follows: "And You also remembered Noach lovingly, taking account of him…." This zekhira involves God's attention to and care for Noach. Analogously, when we speak of our zikkaron of God, what is required is much more than the knowledge that He exists, but rather an existential awareness of His Presence.
In the modern era, the problem of "your heart shall become haughty, and you shall forget the Lord your God" is an acute one. But the problem is not manifest so much, at least among people who consider themselves religious, in the concern lest they forget God and follow idolatry. Rather, the Achilles' heel of the modern religious person is the lack of existential awareness of God's Presence in his daily life.
What level of awareness is demanded? The Rambam sets out a very ambitious level in his discussion of the criteria for appropriate love of God in Hilkhot Teshuva (10:3):
What is the proper level of love that one is to have toward God? It is a very powerful love, such that your soul is bound up in the love of God… as if you are lovesick, like one whose mind cannot turned away from the love of a woman, for he is constantly engaged in thinking of her, whether sitting or standing, eating or drinking. Greater than that should be one’s love for God….
If I were to compose an "al cheit," a confession to be recited in the Vidui service on Yom Ha-kippurim, for our era, it would be the following: "Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da'at – [We confess] for the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention."
We need, especially at this time of year, to work on this awareness and connection. On Shabbat we will read in the Haftara, "Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokekha – Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God" (Hoshea 14:2), indicating that the process of teshuva is a return to God. May it be His will that we merit the application of Moshe's statement, which we recite toward the end of the Musaf service on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Ha-kippurim: "Ve-attem ha-devekim ba-Hashem Elokekhem, chayyim kullekhem ha-yom – You who cling to the Lord your God are alive today" (Devarim 4:4).
[This sicha was delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Ha'azinu-Shuva, 5763 (2002).]