There are times in our lives when we are inspired, eager to learn, and to take on new projects. As we move forward, we gain knowledge effortlessly, without even noticing how much progress is being made. During these times, the mind is wide open, soaking in the information with ease. Other times, we feel blocked. Our attention span limited, our mental power weak, and it seems as though we are pulling a heavy load. The thought drifts in that we would like to begin something new, to pick up a book, or attend a new class- but decide that we are too tired or too busy.
In Chapter four of Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) we find an interesting commentary that relates to these two states. “Elisha the son of Avuyah would say: One who learns Torah as a child, to what can he be likened? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah when old, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper.”
Before dissecting this analogy, let’s consider: the goal of the entire work, Ethics of our fathers, is to provide character advice that one can employ in ones daily life. The advice in the first clause is understood, the objective to stress the importance and everlasting effects of early Jewish education. The author himself was a child-prodigy, brought to the study hall at an early age, and attained a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge in his youth. So it is understandable that he should appreciate and want to convey the value of this stage.
Had the passage stopped there, without the comparable deficiency of one’s pursuit of knowledge in adulthood, the point would be made and the instruction would be clear. But what is the intention behind of the second clause- the “ink inscribed on erased paper”? There seems to be little benefit to the reader in highlighting that knowledge as adult is more challenging and limited. Furthermore, what if one did not have the opportunities when younger? Why provoke the thought that maybe it’s too late- possibly causing one to abandon hope? This seems not only to be excessive but counterproductive to the goal of this entire work.
Taking into account these difficulties, there is a beautiful commentary which interprets a different message: There is old and young in years. And there is old and young in mentality. Accordingly, what the Mishna is relating is that, despite our calendar years, we can and must seek to regain the virtues of being “young”- and to discard deficiencies that arrive with age. The deeper interpretation of the words “as a child” would then be “like a child”- with the attitude of a child. Likewise, old refers not to physical age but to mindset.
One who is “old” in ideas is one who believes that he has already sized up the world, come to the right conclusions, and has lost his sense of wonder. Status, financial security, age can all contribute to dulling the feeling of urgency to progress, and send the message that we have arrived. The self consciousness drive to define oneself and to establish an identity further interferes with our ability to internalize information, which enters into a brain filled with preconceptions and opinions.
In contrast, children are thirsty, not embarrassed to ask questions, not threatened to say “I don’t know.” They feel no need to monitor their progress. We have all heard the terms “blank slate”, “absorbent mind” in reference to theories of childhood development describing how a child is undefined, in the process of developing, and consequently knowledge is like “ink written on fresh paper.” Like the ink readily absorbs into new paper, so the Torah learned when young permeates the fiber of the child’s being.
In kabalistic terminology this quality is a state of mind called bittul– the pure curiosity, the absence of self consciousness that allows one that allows one to absorb. For an adult this intellectual humility and lightness of being takes more work to achieve, but is the essential ingredient to seeing things as they are, not as I would like them to be.
The message for us then is to stay young in a positive sense. We may be getting on in years, we may be parents, we may have established ourselves in our careers, defined our values and beliefs. But at the same time, we must strive to reenter the mindset of a child and renew our curiosity, inquisitiveness, and sense of wonder at the world. As we fight the urge to think that we already have mastered or understood, or already posses the answers, we can shift into a fresh mode of reevaluating, and attempt to approach what we hear from scratch, with a clean sheet of paper. The wisdom we gain will then be both deeper and everlasting.