The Benefit of Forgetting

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Forgetting something is not usually considered a useful experience. In general, we chastise ourselves for forgetting anything from simple tasks to important events. Unquestionably, there are certain times in life we desperately want to forget, yet, in general, failure to recall is just that – a failure. One would think this characteristic is clear in the system of mitzvos as well. When one forgets—to say a portion of tefillah, to make a bracha, etc.--, halacha steps in with solutions. That is, until we come across the mitzvah of shichecha.

The Torah describes this mitzvah in Parshas Ki Teitze (24:19):

“When you reap your reaping in your field, and you forget a sheaf in the field, you may not return to take it; for the proselyte, for the orphan, and for the widow let it be; in order that Hashem, your God, will bless you in all your endeavors.”

The Aruch Hashulchan (Hilchos Peah 9:1) makes an extremely important observation. He writes that this mitzvah is different than all the other mitzvos in the Torah. Whereas every other mitzvah is based on remembering the commandment, and therefore forgetting it removes the opportunity to perform it, the mitzvah of shichecha is the exact opposite. One cannot perform this mitzvah without forgetting. 

How is this possible? Let’s be clear – forgetting here means a genuine forgetting. Without getting into the particulars, an individual cannot “set up” a situation where he conveniently forgets some wheat in the field. The entire phenomenon must be honest and sincere.

The Aruch Hashulchan goes on, citing a story found in the Tosefta. It seems a certain great individual, after he forgot about some produce in his field, instructed his son to bring an abundance of korbanos. His son inquired as to why he was so overly ecstatic about this particular mitzvah versus any other. His father responded that all other mitzvos were given for us to know (le’daaseinu), while this mitzvah was not intended for us to know, as it only came about through the will of God. And as we see in the verse, one obtains a bracha from God for participating in this particular mitzvah.

The Chinuch (Sefer HaChinuch 592) offers an interesting insight to this mitzvah as well. He explains that one of the underlying reasons for the mitzvah is as follows:

“At the root of the precept lies the reason that the poor and the needy in their want and their penury, set their eyes on the crops of grain when they see the owners of the fields binding the sheaves in the field according to the blessing of the Eternal Lord that He has given them, and they think in their heart, ‘If it were only granted me that it should be this for me, to gather sheaves into my house! If only I could bring one [home] I would rejoice with it’. It was therefore part of His loving-kindness toward His human beings to fulfill this yearning of theirs when it happens by chance that the owner of the field forgets it.”

One fascinating concept being addressed by the Chinuch is the attitude of the ani towards these forgotten crops. The wish being expressed, one where the ani simply wants the chance to be able to bring his own sheaves into his home,  is not the primary desire that one would guess is the ani’s motivation.  Yet it is possible the Chinuch is revealing to us one of the fundamental ideas of this mitzvah. As we know, this mitzvah is “grouped” under those areas of agriculture set aside for the poor, which includes peah and lekket. In the case of peah, the intent of the baal is clear – he sets aside a portion for the poor. Lekket follows, in that (on a very simple level) it involves what falls to the ground from the initial collection. What these two share in common is the direct causal relationship between the baal and the ani. It is evident to the ani where the food is coming from, and it is evident to the ani his complete dependence on the baal. Shichecha, the third of these mitzvos, serves an important objective--countering the perception of the ani. For the ani, to be able to take that which is forgotten is a different experience. What he is taking is no longer a handout, and his sense of complete dependence is thereby minimized. This could be what the Chinuch refers to in the wish – it is a desire to have, while even temporarily, a sense of independence. 

One might question the importance of the sensitivity of the ani and his sense of independence. Yet what we sometimes fail to perceive is that the state of poverty, from the perspective of the Torah, should ideally be a temporary state. The ani should strive to escape it, for such an existence is a source of insecurity, depression, and embarrassment at having to be dependent on others. When there is an opportunity to take those forgotten sheaves, a newfound confidence emerges in the ani, and a door opens to escaping from his predicament. This does not mean it is a guarantee. What it does mean is that placing the ani in the correct psychological framework serves as a valuable impetus to his desired emergence from his current state. Sadly, there is a virulent ideology present in many circles of Judaism which promotes a lifestyle of poverty as not being problematic. To ask others for money is the norm, not the exception. To live a life of poverty is comfortable, if not praiseworthy. Such an approach runs completely counter to the ideals of Torah, and only serves as an impediment in the person’s perfection, and ultimately, his role as an oved Hashem.

This helps give us a basic understanding of the benefit of this mitzvah. Yet we still need to decipher the anomaly described in the Aruch HaShulchan. What idea is being expressed in this formulation? Why was the father so ecstatic about this particular mitzvah? 

When we speak of someone forgetting something, we are really referring to when the person remembers that which he forgot. For example, if someone forgot to take out the garbage (my kids seem to all the time), it is only when the person remembers he forgot that it is now considered “forgetting.” As long as the person has forgotten what he had to do, he has no conscious knowledge he forgot. This is an important logical distinction, as it demonstrates that this mitzvah does rely on remembering – it is just that a person remembers that he forgot, rather than recalling that which he already knows. Therefore, the mitzvah is not completely foreign to the normal construct of mitzvos. There is a philosophical idea that is concurrent with this distinction. When the opportunity arises to perform this mitzvah, it is one that exposes the very limitations of man’s knowledge. He cannot know he would forget – this means the performance of the mitzvah is devoid of any sense of premonition, anticipation or probability (versus, for example, hashava aveidah, where a person cannot anticipate it, but its opportunity is thrust upon him from an external source). This mitzvah then reflects how the system of Torah, when it comes to man and his knowledge, is truly complete. This added feature might be what created the sense of joy in the father. He had an opportunity to gain perfection in an area that he could never anticipate. For that alone, one should give shevach and hodaa to Hashem.