The Ramchal opens his work Mesillat Yesharim, his fundamental work about a person’s avoda (self-work), by telling us that while one will not find many new ideas in his words and are well known by all, they are forgotten by nearly everyone. We need to try to understand how in the matter of self improvement there can be so much forgetfulness. Since this problem is not new to our generation, but has been with us for at least hundreds of years, this is an inherent problem.
A common attitude is that self-work, the development of our soul, is secondary in life. Many of us spend years learning Talmud and halakha day and night, but won’t find time to learn mussar, ethical teachings. Why? Because learning everything else means more to the person than self-improvement. As a result, we forget about this avoda and push it aside.
The Ramchal warns us that if we have not yet reached the level of giving primary importance to avoda (self-work), there is no reason to continue. If we relate to it as something of secondary importance, we can learn a lot, but we will simply forget it, since there is no reason to remember. We remember that which is important to us because we want to remember it.
There are two sources that we have for memory — our brain in our head, and our heart. Things that we are not connected to, that we view as irrelevant to our daily lives, we store in our brain. However, something or someone we are very attached to and is relevant in our lives, is in our heart, and also in our brain. A memory in the heart comes from one’s essence, whereas that of the mind is external to us. In order to remember about our avoda of self-improvement, we must make it part of our essence.
How do we remember the Torah we learn? We can learn short-term in order to pass a test, but we will soon forget it. Some people are gifted with incredible memories, but that doesn’t mean the Torah they learn is in their heart. We must decide to strive to merit that the Torah we learn becomes an inseparable part of us, as in, “Your Torah is within me” (T’hillim 40:9). Why? Because the Torah is in his heart, not just his brain, as King Shlomo says, “My heart saw much wisdom” (Kohellet 1:16).
There is a mitzva for the “Torah to be sharp in your mouth” (Kiddushin 30a), and to remember it. When a person has Torah in one’s heart and not just in the brain, even if, G-d forbid, the person would have some brain injury, the Torah would remain inside the heart. We see this in stroke victims, G-d forbid, who lose much of their brain function, yet remember Hashem and the mitzvot. The Torah is inside of this person, imprinted in the heart, and cannot be taken away.
We must each strive to make the avoda of self-improvement a central part of our life. If we view it as primary, we will make the time to learn it. If it is relevant and important to us, we will have it inside our heart and remember what we learn.
Based on Bilvavi On the Path: The Ramchal’s Introduction and Chapter One