In my introduction to discipleship, I listed the Four Responsibilities of a Disciple. They included the following:
- To memorize the words of his rabbi or teacher
- To learn his teacher’s traditions and Scriptural interpretations
- To imitate the actions of his teacher
- To raise up more disciples
Of the four responsibilities of a disciple, which I discussed previously, memorization of our Master’s teaching is at the core. Does this mean we literally need to memorize every single word that we have of his that has been left to our record? Or does it mean that we are to have a good handle on everything that he taught? While I believe that the former (actually taking a solid translation and meticulously memorizing each and every word) is the ultimate goal, the latter is a very good starting point. But is memorizing his every word even a realistic goal? I believe it is. However, it will take a great deal of effort, and a change of our educational paradigm in order to do so, because in our society, educational potential has been dumbed down. We have devalued a true education, and praised mediocrity, being afraid of pushing our limits. Nonetheless, in other cultures where pushing the boundaries and potential of the intellect is acceptable, lengthy memorization is not only possible, but de facto.
There’s a children’s game that illustrates this point well. It’s a game known by many names, but the two with which I am familiar are “Telephone” and “Gossip.” It’s where you line up a group of people, whisper a phrase in the ear of the first person and then they repeat it quietly to the person next to them and pass the message down the chain to the last person. When the last person receives the message, the received message is spoken aloud to the group. At this point there is usually a roar of laughter when everyone hears how the original message has been distorted to an unidentifiable substitute. However, I remember hearing of a Westerner who was living somewhere in the Middle East and decided to play this game with the children one day. He gathered the children, explained the rules, lined them up and spoke the a phrase in the ear of the first child. The message was passed along until it reached the end of the chain. The child who last received the message, repeated it verbatim, word-for-word, back to the group. The Westerner, thinking this to be a fluke, tried it again with another phrase. Again, the child at the end of the line produced the same results. He tried it a third and fourth time only to find the results to be identical, thus proving that it was indeed possible and even probable for an oral tradition to be accurate, particularly in a Middle Eastern context.
When the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, was alive, he would teach for hours upon hours on Shabbat and other festival days. Since Jewish law prohibits both the use of electronic devices and writing on Shabbat, his teachings were not recorded in the traditional manner. However, there was a group of oral scribes who would put to memory the teachings of the Rebbe as he lectured for hours on end. At the close of Shabbat, they would begin transcribing his teachings from memory in order to preserve them for latter generations. Simon Jacobson was one of these gifted individuals and has passed on volumes of the Rebbe’s teachings in the years since his passing.
On a smaller scale, a waiter or waitress has to do a similar feat. They constantly have to push organized information into their short term memory. A good waiter or waitress will remember what each person ordered, as well as what they are drinking (to be able to properly refill drinks without a mixup). I remember a year or so ago I had a business meeting one morning at a local diner to which I had never been. The following week we had a follow up meeting at the same location, and my waitress (the same one we had the previous week), brought honey to the table along with my coffee without me having to ask. After just one visit, she remembered a small detail regarding my preference for my coffee out of the hundreds of people she serves each week. I admit that my request for honey was somewhat unique and probably aided in her remembering, but it was still impressive, and shows that what a properly developed memory can accommodate.
Bringing It Home
We have all heard of the Mega Memory system and other such systems designed to increase your ability to remember things. It’s not that we are incapable of remembering large volumes of information, it’s just that we haven’t learned how to properly prioritize information and store it in a method for easy retrieval. Why is it that we can remember every play in a ball game, every corny one-liner of a movie, every lyric to every song of your favorite artist, every character and particular dysfunction of our favorite sitcom, but yet can’t remember the Sermon on the Mount? It’s all about prioritization and organization.
Back to the Master. No matter what our mental ability, we each have some capacity to store and retrieve the teachings of our Master. If we are continually pouring over his words, we will have an affinity with them that will not easily be broken, and that will guide us in our day to day experiences. It will also provide the springboard from which the other three responsibilities can take off and begin to soar.