In this week’s parashat Eikev, we are called upon to remember to love God, to keep God’s commandments and to walk in and cling to God’s ways. The following verses comprise part of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma in our daily liturgy:
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil – I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill.”
If we can devote our bodies, hearts and minds to serving that which is beyond ourselves, to manifest Divine values and teachings through our lives, we will experience fruitfulness and fulfillment. We will find nourishment for ourselves and will be able to provide nourishment to all living beings – including our cattle!
But Torah recognizes how difficult this can be, and that we will constantly be distracted from our stated objective, and that we always need to be alert to those distractions.
“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For Adonai’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that Adonai is assigning to you.”
Distractions constantly lure us away from our intentions. When our hearts and minds stray from that which we have focus upon, we feel as if we are lost. Not “lost” in the sense of not knowing where we are, but rather, “lost” in the sense of not knowing who we are.
But in case you don’t know how to get back on track, our tradition provides us with sense-based reminders to bring us back from the place of distraction:
“Therefore impress My words upon your very heart … reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that ADONAI swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.”
So, we see that Torah’s prescription for staying on the true path is to “impress” God’s words “upon your heart” — in effect, to memorize them. But why? And how does memorization keep us on the straight and narrow?
I’d like to share with you a teaching from a book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. (I strongly recommend this book for any one over the age of 55 who forgets something, and is ready to say, “Uh-oh”; this book can help you understand that you don’t need to say it.) Mr. Foer examines various professions and those who excel in them to evaluate the source of their skill set.
For example, grandmasters in the international chess world can be expected to have very elevated analytical skills. But amazingly, they only had rather pedestrian analytical skills. Instead, they had an incredible memory for remembering past chess matches. When you and I look at a chess board, we look at just the pieces in front of us and their relative positions on the board, and decide, i.e., analyze. However, a grandmaster looks at a board and recalls the thousands of matches that he has stored in his memory and can instantly retrieve the one or ones that replicate the current board positions and immediately apply that match to the current situation. So, what we call “analysis” is simply the application of a similar match to the resolution of the match being played, and regurgitating the moves made in that earlier match. In other words, “memory.”
In effect, Torah is doing the same thing here. First, we have words, and we have teachings that we can repeat to ourselves and to our children. We can read them and recite them, learn and re-learn them.
We can ‘memorize’ them. And by memorizing them, by “impressing them upon our hearts”, we make them a part of our lives. In effect, we thereby become ‘grandmasters’ in life with the firm imprint of the words of Torah upon us. And then each time we apply the words of Torah to the resolution of an event, we “impress” that event on our heart as well, or as Mr. Foer calls it, “create a memory.” And when we do so — just as a grandmaster does so with his chess matches — with those newly-created memories, we can readily retrieve those words of Torah, and as well our previous applications of those words of Torah, to resolve any situation before us. And no longer be worried that we will be distracted from our path.