Sunday, December 10, 2023 -
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Alzheimer’s

If a person could not forget, a person could not live. If a person remembered the fullness of pain of a betrayal, of a big financial loss, of the death of a loved one, of a major surgery, of an undeserved rejection, a person could not live. Blessed is the power to forget.

Up to a point.

Today we are familiar with Alzheimer’s, an entirely different kind of forgetting. This is a curse, not a blessing. Is there any guidance to be gained from the Torah? To my knowledge, we have no record of this kind of forgetting in antiquity, yet we do have a somewhat mysterious example of forgetting that, like so much of Torah, seems opaque . . . until something new unveils its meaning and relevance.

During the 30 days of mourning for Moses, the Talmud tells us, 3,000 laws were forgotten.

Just before Moses’ death, the Talmud supplies a conversation he had with his faithful disciple Joshua.

“Ask me any uncertainties you have regarding Torah law,” Moses said to Joshua.

“My teacher! Did I leave you for even a moment and go somewhere else, that I might miss one of your teachings? Did you yourself not write about me, ‘his servant, Joshua the son of Nun, a lad, would never leave [Moses’] tent?’ (Exodus 33:11).”

Immediately upon hearing this haughty response (the Talmud continues), Moses’ strength waned, whereupon Joshua, deeply pained, deeply regretting his words, forgot 300 laws, while 700 more uncertainties occurred to him.

On the same Talmudic page (Temurah 16a), the Talmud notes that when Moses died and the people fell into deep mourning for 30 days, 3,000 laws were forgotten. Another version has it that 1,700 a fortiori arguments, linguistic comparisons and classifications of laws were forgotten.

Whatever the meaning of the exact numbers, the Talmud makes it clear that absolute forgetting is intolerably painful. The Talmud goes on to say that the people demanded of Joshua: “Ask G-d! Let G-d reveal these laws over again!” Joshua responds, quoting the Torah, “It [the Torah] is not in Heaven” (Deut. 30:12). The Torah is given once, and is given to man. As man’s possession, he is responsible to guard it and to study it. If man messes up, no one can help. Not even G-d.

Not hearing the answer, the people turn to Phineas and Aaron the High Priests and press the same question. The answer is the same.

They turn to Samuel the Prophet. His answer, too, is the same. What is lost to memory is lost.

Except in one case. As to the 1,700 forgotten items, Othniel the son of Kenaz, the first of the biblical judges, restored them through his interpretive powers. These were matters of logic and exegesis. These matters could be restored — but no one, not even Othniel, could restore any of the other forgotten laws.

The teaching here is clear: Forgetting can be absolute.

This does not absolve one of the obligation to study the Torah that remains. Indeed, this has been a major Jewish occupation for some 3,000 years since the days of Joshua. The absolute loss of parts of the Torah not withstanding, the people stopped complaining and treasured what was left.

When forgetting is a curse, when forgetting sets in, as in Alzheimer’s patients at the onset of the disease, the Talmud is telling us: Treasure what remains. Do not mourn the laws that were lost; rather, find the beauty in the Torah we still possess. It is vast.

If a person has completely lost his or her memory, the pain is mutual — for the victim and the loved ones and friends. When a face and a voice are no longer recognized, the pain can be staggering. When an Alzheimer patient is beset with confusion or physical distress, the beloved onlooker may also be in agony, albeit in a radically different way. However, when a person begins to lose memory, others may search for the beauty that remains, as in the millennia-old tradition of Torah study that took hold after the death of Moses.

It is not a question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. The human personality, even if diminished, is immeasurable. When loved ones withdraw from an Alzheimer’s patient because it is too painful to witness the decline, the decline may steepen and the remaining beauty depart more quickly, leaving relatives and friends even more devastated.

A related question: Since 3,000 (or 1,700) teachings were lost during the intense mourning for Moses, might the mourning have been intense? Was the focus on the loss so intense that much else of inestimable value was also lost?

If we focus on the losses we see in a friend or a loved one with Alzheimer’s, is the focus too intense? It depends. If the person is “gone,” the intensity in the mourning may be unavoidable. But if the person is diminished, might we also lose much of the remaining beauty, unrealistically comparing it to what once was rather than taking it on its own?

Perhaps we may even ask: Just as Othniel was able to restore 1,700 teachings, might this be a challenge to us? By appreciating and engaging with a person with Alzheimer’s in its initial stages, might we too be restorative? At most, restorative of the friend or relative at some level; or, failing that, at least restorative of our own feelings for the person?

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg may be reached at [email protected].

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