Criminal Intent

When last we spoke of the Rabbis, our lesson dealt with studying while strolling and we were able to apply the lesson in three wildly different applications–to teach us to focus, to teach us to rest, and to teach us that distracted walking is a real danger in the modern world. This teaching also focuses on studying, but its implications can be far greater–and far more severe.

3.10 Rabbi Dostai bar Yannai, in the name of Rabbi Meir, taught:

Whoever forgets a single word of his studies is considered as having committed a capital offense, as it is written, “Take heed and guard well your soul lest you forget the things your own eyes have seen” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Does this apply to one who finds his studies too difficult? No, for the verse continues, “Lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life” (ibid.). This means that he is not guilty unless he deliberately forgets his studies.

I’m no expert, but I think we–as products of modern psychology–understand memory a bit better than the Rabbis did some hundreds of years ago. It’s natural to forget things as more time goes on. It’s natural to not remember certain things or to remember some things better than others. To say that forgetfulness should be one’s death sentence is quite severe, and we must remember that, literally, this means “guilty against his own soul.”

As the aforesaid products of modern psychology that I had said we are, I think we can all agree before going any further that there is no crime in natural forgetting. As we age, things go away. As we go about life, things go away. Does anyone remember what they ate for dinner two years ago? Does anyone remember all of the words spoken between them and another, even a significant other, beside a few meaningful phrases and expressions? Our brains are like computers: Our active memory is limited, and to make room for new data, sometimes the old data must be cleared out. It’s simply a part of living and I don’t think anyone would fault us for that.

Of course, all of this is overlooking an important qualifier: That the material being forgotten is one’s studies. Since studying is an intentional action, and since studying leads to learning which can be considered the retention of new knowledge, we can conclude that this teaching does not apply to general instances of forgetfulness, but only to those moments when that which has been forgotten was meant to be learned completely.

That is to say, it is only wrong to forget if your intent was to remember. This practical tautology (if I remember, I won’t forget) is not in itself the lesson to be learned from this teaching, but it’s a fair place to start. It’s simple, easy to remember (no pun intended), and fairly straightforward. So where do we take it from here?

Last time I defined “guilty against his own soul” to mean that one has failed to conform to his own personal obligations. When we study today, it’s usually because it’s required of us–our teachers make us study so as to pass their courses, courses we don’t always care about taking. However, in Rabbinical times, studying was not an unfortunate obligation; it was spiritual duty. They didn’t just study to pass a class–they studied, in some cases, as a way of life. This level of intent is absent for most when we think about studying in general, but at least for any college students reading this, consider this “studying” to refer to the work for your major, for those classes you love so much they don’t feel like an obligation, but instead feel like fun. When we think of that level of commitment, it seems obvious to say we’d feel guilty against ourselves to forget it all.

There comes another important lesson, however: If your studies are too difficult, you are not at fault for forgetting them–because they’re too difficult to learn, more insurmountable than you can surmount. This disparity between what you are capable of doing and what is being done absolves you from this guilt because you, in effect, are attempting the impossible: Trying to learn something you are not ready to learn.

I feel like I need to say an extra word about that last part. When I mean the work is too difficult, I mean it in the way I’d not tell you to take calculus if you need to learn is algebra. I’m not saying you’re free to forget just because you’re not studying with enough intent to make the challenge reasonable; I’m saying you’re only absolved from this if what you’re studying is so far above where your skills are, it’s impossible to learn.

We can apply these lessons in one fundamental theory of education. If we are going to study something, we should do so with the conviction that forgetting even a single word will leave us feeling inadequate and our work insufficient. However, should our work be too difficult, and our guilt unjustified, then we are obligated to change our course of study to something at our level, such that we may study with this desired conviction.

Both are important lessons that can be summed up with two questions: Why study something if you’re not going to commit yourself to learning it? And why study something above your skill level when you can study something at your skill level and learn and grow more than you would have otherwise?

If you cannot reasonably answer these questions, then you haven’t learned this lesson. Make your learning intentional, and you will succeed. It’s a fitting lesson for this first weekend of the semester, and it’s a memorable lesson for the rest of our lives.

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