Remembering is a State of Being

Today, we are encouraged to avoid “cutting corners.” This phrase means that we should avoid taking shortcuts that might be detrimental to any particular outcome. Do the quality work, and don’t try to sacrifice quality for time. However, the original instruction to avoid “cutting corners” comes from something entirely different.

In the Torah, we are told not to cut the corners of our fields because that produce is left for the poor and those without access to resources. They were communally provided for by taking what was left in the corners of our fields so they had food to eat.

The Torah goes further to say, 

“When you reap the harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it, [it is] for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the word of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 24:19)

I want you to pay close attention to the obligation here: if you forget a sheaf of grain while harvesting, don’t turn back. It isn’t yours anymore.

This verse is central to a discussion in the Talmud on Bava Metzia 11a:

It was taught in a baraita: While one was standing in the city and says, ‘I know that I have a sheaf in my field that I intended to bring, that the workers forgot. It shall not be considered “forgotten.”’

In this early rabbinic text, the landowner finds themselves in the city and realizes that something that was supposed to come into town with him did not. 

This has happened to everyone! I cannot tell you how many times I intended to bring a bag of snacks with me, only to find them on the counter when I got home. While frustrating for me and my household’s rumbling stomachs, the landowner has a different issue.

Does this forgotten grain in the field count towards the injunction in the Torah that forgotten sheaves in the field are no longer ours? When does the forgotten status apply?

One might have thought that it is not considered “forgotten,” but Scripture teaches: “…and forget a sheaf in the field,” and it states specifically “in the field and forgets,” which means this only applies in the field and not in the city where it is not applicable.

The Talmud does not accept this on its face and explores this situation very deeply. It asks and discusses a number of questions on this scenario: 

  • Does remembering it in the city rather than the field matter?
  • What if it was remembered at the beginning but later forgotten?
  • What if I was harvesting and I was only standing a few feet away, can I go back for it?

The incredible element here that jumps out to me is that remembering something is a deeply internal and ephemeral measurement. It cannot really be verified by others and something can be remembered and forgotten many times. 

I think this points us to a bigger question of the nature and implications of memory more broadly.

Remembering impacts more than just us.

The act of remembering happens within the self, but its implications expand beyond.

When we remember the aphorisms or wisdom of family members, mentors, or friends, we can stop, reflect, and shift our intentions in the moment to choose a new path. So much of the task, each day, is just trying to remember to do the right thing.

When I do remember something, I might behave and express myself differently. This isn’t limited to ourselves but can spark something in others. It reminds me of this commercial for an insurance company. In each scene, someone does something good and another person notices it and is inspired by it to do something positive also.

In the Talmudic and biblical texts, remembering or forgetting impacts the people back in the field. Will those who rely on the sheaves have access?

Forgetting is natural.

There are individuals who remember everything they’ve experienced in their lives, and there are the rest of us. The only time I remember everything is when I’m laying in bed and reviewing, in excruciating detail, every mistake I’ve made in a day.

The ability to forget is a gift. It is an opportunity to retain the important things while putting aside some of the mundane. Of course, it goes both ways because so many of the mundane things are holy and special.

What is fascinating in our texts here is that forgetting is built into the system. The Torah knows that people will forget and relies on that fact to protect people. Our fickle human memories are just that, human. Our inability to remember everything is part of the fabric of our lives.

Remembering and Forgetting are states of being.

In our example here, the sheaves have a status of being remembered or forgotten, similar to other kinds of statuses. They could be harvested or sold, for example.

We know, deep down, that we apply these statuses to each other too. We feel the sense of being remembered or forgotten.

Did those around me remember my birthday or anniversary?
Did my partner remember to bring or offer me a drink at dinner?
Was I remembered to be invited to a party?

In each of these, we feel this status. We want to be remembered.

So, too, it is fitting for us to take the time to remember others—not just those in our present but also the past. We can honor and remember our ancestors, their struggles and successes, their pains and delights. Forgetting them would be a loss we could never make up.

At the same time, it is incumbent on us to remember those of the future to make good choices to protect them. To forget that our decisions today have consequences tomorrow.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.