We were young then. They were old—in our eyes, very old.
We were the students, barely out of high school and studying in the beit midrash of our yeshiva in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Some of us were on the path toward rabbinic ordination, but most of us were simply spending a year or two prolonging our religious studies and wondering what to do with our lives.
They were the elderly residents of an institution just across the street from our study hall. It was called the “Home for the Sages of Israel.” It occupied a timeworn building, which consisted of several dormitory rooms, a kitchen and dining room, and a synagogue that served the dual purposes of prayer and Torah study. Some of the men actually lived there, but my impression is that most of them lived elsewhere and used the institution as, what today would be called, an adult day care center.”
My friends and I had very little interaction with the elderly men. 18-year-olds have little patience for the aged, and in most ways, despite our immersion in religious studies, we were typical 18-year-olds.
From time to time, however, we would venture across the street and spend some time in the old men’s company. On those occasions, we would come away saddened. Many of the men were simply asleep, sprawled out on the benches that lined the walls of the sanctuary. Others were daydreaming, surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke, impervious to the dangers of smoking that were not yet public knowledge at that time. Few were open to conversation of any sort. We soon discovered that those who were open to conversation were in one phase or another of senile dementia.
We came away disheartened. We had anticipated the opportunity of engaging “Sages of Israel” in dialogue. We had hoped to imbibe some of their learning and wisdom. Instead, we were confronted by broken men, broken by the ravages of age, exacerbated by their experiences during the Holocaust, from which they had barely escaped little more than a decade before.
As budding Talmudists, we debated amongst ourselves as to what our attitude should be toward these unfortunates. We knew passages in the Talmud that addressed the sad situation that we faced. We recalled the passage in Tractate Berachot 8b, which reads, “Be sensitive with regard to the old person who has forgotten his learning under duress, for we are taught that the Tablets, and the shattered Tablets, were placed side-by-side in the Holy Ark.” Rashi comments that the “duress” mentioned in this passage can refer either to illness, dementia, or to the pressures of life. He adds that by “sensitivity,” the Talmud means to command us to revere the sage who has lost his learning and not merely “sympathize” with him. Shattered Tablets deserve the same deference as the Holy Tablets themselves.
Our discussion persisted even after we returned to our study desks. We found ourselves wondering about forgetfulness, and its causes and possible benefits. We were familiar with the rabbinic teaching that if we would not be blessed with the ability to forget, we would be paralyzed by the memories of our personal tragedies and traumas. But the men we met that day forgot not only their many sufferings. They also forgot their learning, their wisdom, their positive experiences, and often even the memories of their dearest loved ones.
I still vividly recall the frustration we all felt at our inability to understand what benefits might be derived from their state of total forgetfulness. We were forced to resign ourselves to add this frustration to the theological frustrations we all confront when we ask, in one way or another, “Why do the righteous suffer?”
Remember, however, that we were 18-year-olds. We were blessed with the resilience—some might even say the naïveté—with which young people are endowed: we dismissed our theological quandaries and proceeded to wonder how we could avoid the fate of the old men in the building across the street. “Isn’t it a mitzvah,” one of us volunteered, “to do all that one can to avoid forgetting one’s learning?” He was referring, of course, to a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 30:23-7:11).
The verse reads: “But take utmost care and watch your souls scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes. Lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” (ibid. 4:9).
We all recalled that verse, and those of us who were able to remember it verbatim did so with special emphasis upon the phrase “all the days of your life.”
We further recalled the special emphasis that the Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Meir, gave to this verse:
Rabbi Dostai ben Yannai said in the name of Rabbi Meir: “One who forgets even one thing of his Torah learning, Scripture regards him as if he had endangered his soul, for it is said, ‘But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes.’ One might think that this applies even to one who finds his studies too hard to remember. Therefore, the verse adds, ‘Lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life.’ Thus, one does not endanger his soul unless he deliberately removes teachings from his heart.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:8)
Later that day, some of us shared our sophomoric reflections with the rabbi who was our mashgiach ruchani, our spiritual advisor. He listened with a smile and suggested that we return to the old age home and get to know one of the residents there, a man named Reb Yankele.
Few of us were eager to return to the depressing scene that we had encountered. Thankfully, I was one of the few who returned willingly, and it was that day that I met Reb Yankele for the first time. I had several subsequent “discussions” with him, which consisted mostly of my listening to him and struggling to sort out nuggets of genius and wisdom from incoherent ramblings.
Reb Yankele was one of those uniquely talented individuals who knew, not only every word of the Babylonian Talmud, but exactly where on the page that word appeared. He spoke only Yiddish, and for all intents and purposes, still resided in the Lithuanian shtetl from which he escaped.
We were introduced to him, he offered us some of the biscuits and vodka that nourished him for the entire day, and we asked him for the secret of his uncanny ability to remember so much of his learning.
Most of his reply was incomprehensible; that is, it was incomprehensible to us. But here is the phrase that did come through, clearly and unforgettably: “Ever since I was a yingele, a young boy, I prayed that I would remember, and I prayed that I would forget. I prayed that I would remember my Torah learning. I prayed that I would forget everything that would interfere with my ability to remember my Torah learning. Now, I remember little of my past. I recall none of the details of my rescue from the Nazis. The Master of the Universe heard my prayers. If you come to visit me again tomorrow, I will not remember you, but I will remember the Torah passages that we discussed.”
The incident that I have related to you, dear reader, is one of my most precious memories. I certainly do not remember every word of Talmud I ever studied. But I will never forget my first encounter with Reb Yankele, whose full name was HaRav HaGaon, the truly great rabbi, Yaakov Safsal, of blessed memory. Blessed memory, indeed.