Young Minds, Old Minds
Chapter 4, Mishna 25
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Elisha ben (son of) Avuya said: One who studies Torah as a child, to
what is he compared? To ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies
Torah as an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on blotted
This week's mishna tells us that which Maimonides describes as "self-evident
and plain to the eye." Torah studied in one's youth makes a much more
lasting impression than Torah studied in later years. This is true in one
sense simply because a younger person has a clearer, less cluttered mind and
a sharper memory. As we age, not only do our faculties slowly dull
(certainly our short-term recall), but our minds become filled with more and
more useless and/or distracting information. Our memories become
increasingly less accurate and reliable.
Secondly, when we are young our minds are still open to new ideas and
concepts. We are not yet so set in our ways -- both of thinking and behaving
-- to absorb new ideas and adapt to new realities. (A sad example of this is
the difficulty in achieving marital harmony when older people remarry.)
Young minds are remarkable in their ability to adapt to new situations and
surroundings. This is certainly true on a scholastic level -- such as
learning a new language or developing an ear for music. Many skills, if not
acquired earlier in life, will be difficult if not impossible to acquire in
And this is true on the religious plane as well. If we study when we are
young, our minds will literally be shaped by our knowledge. Knowledge of the
Torah will become ingrained and Judaism's values will become second nature.
The Talmud writes that when a child reaches six years of age, "stuff him
like an ox" with the knowledge and understanding of the Torah (Kesuvos 50a).
What we absorb at that age will not only be better-remembered information.
It will shape us as individuals for the rest of our lives.
And the younger we start the better. We all know that the "givens" of our
childhood are very hard to cast off. If a child grew up with bigotry,
prejudice or domestic discord, such hatred will become part of his or her
ingrained nature -- and almost impossible to eradicate when he matures. It
takes generations for a society, such as the American South, to slowly and
painfully uproot such cancerous hatreds. What parents say loudly their
children will say quietly. And *their* children will learn much from the
private snubs and remarks of parents who, realize it or not, become
unwitting guides and role models for the next generation. Fortunate is he
whose childhood memories and experiences are ones of peace, harmony and
Jewish values. Most of us carry baggage we picked up early which we're very
hard put to cast aside.
(Tragically, the same type of poisonous hatred and propaganda is actively
being fed to the Arab and Palestinian youth of today -- by both their
political and religious leaders -- making true peace and reconciliation in
our times (through human efforts) an absolute impossibility.)
A sad irony of life is that when our minds are at the peak of their vitality
and creativity, we are often busy squandering our lives on all sorts of
other outlets, wasteful at best, morally and physically destructive at
worst. As I once heard quoted from George Bernard Shaw, "Youth is a
wonderful thing -- what a crime to waste it on children." Sometimes it takes
years of frustrating and painful experience -- trying out every type of
nonsense under the sun -- till our mature hindsight directs us towards our
Creator and the more spiritual life. By then -- by the time we "know better"
-- we are less able to reach the same spiritual heights which were once open
before us. Oh well, perhaps we'll use our experience to teach our children
to bypass the many years we wasted. But chances are they'll pay no attention
to us and too will learn things the hard way.
This is one reason Judaism places such emphasis on properly educating our
children. The Torah instructs: "And you shall teach them thoroughly to your
sons" (Deuteronomy 6:7) -- to impart to our children the heritage we bear
and the life-lessons we have gained. Likewise, setting up a religious school
system is a rabbinically-instituted community-wide obligation (Talmud Bava
Basra 21a). Children simply do not know better -- and while education must
allow for individual expression and the development of each child's unique
potential, we must be certain that the next generation benefits from the
collective knowledge and experiences Judaism has to offer. Giving our
children the "freedom" to make their own decisions -- without at least
providing a firm set of guidelines and moral parameters -- will leave them
vulnerable to the mistakes countless generations of experience and tradition
have taught us to avoid. And by the way, too much freedom also makes for
very insecure and depressed youngsters.
The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah takes pains to "cheer up" Pirkei Avos' older
readers. He writes that one should not despair if he or she is getting along
in years, feels his memory and intellectual capacity weakening, yet still
has much left to learn (as do we all) -- or is even starting from scratch.
As is always the case in Judaism, G-d rewards for the effort, not the results.
R. Yonah compares such a person to a worker who is given a bucket with a
hole in it and is instructed to spend the day drawing water from a well. Who
cares that little of the drawn water remains? He will be paid for his labor
all the same. So too when it comes to Torah study. The reward -- and the
Heavenly assistance -- given to those who study is in accordance with the
effort expended, and, as the Sages often puts it, "Whether one does much or
little -- so long as he directs his heart towards Heaven" (Talmud Brachos 17a).
Another point worth mentioning -- and this is something I've begun to
appreciate over the years (not that I'm *that* old) :-) -- is that what we
learn as we grow older gains new and added significance. We may not retain
quite as much, but we sometimes make up for it in our depth of understanding
and appreciation. The truths of the Torah become more alive and relevant to
us. Their lessons are confirmed to us through the many experiences our lives
and our G-d have dealt us. The older we get, the closer the Torah hits home.
We see its knowledge as not mere facts and details -- requiring a sharp
memory to retain -- but as eternal lessons of faith and wisdom which make
sense of a world which would otherwise appear so dark and oppressive.
And this is perhaps the single-most important truth we must impart to our
own children and students: Judaism makes *sense*. It is not a religion of
ritual or abstractions. It reflects G-d's will and knowledge, and its wisdom
has the relevance and timeliness of a body of knowledge honed through
countless generations of study, experience, and application. And with this
understanding, all Jews, both young and old, can approach the study of Torah
with youthfulness, energy and understanding.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.