This week we enter a new month, Elul, the period of preparation for the High Holy Days. Its theme is reflection, repentance and renewal — a return to our most pristine state. While the Torah provides universal rules to teshuvah, the core rehabilitation of the soul, every person must search their own memory bank to see what can be improved.
The Talmud (Berachot 58a) states that “Just as no two faces are alike, no two minds are alike.” On a more general level, a child’s mind works differently from an adult. A child’s mind is marked by constant movement. Learning is largely experiential rather than theoretical and involves the five senses. An adult mind is more settled, with already-developed reasoning skills to sort through material and an established framework with which to interpret events and make sense of information.
There are advantages to each. As people move into adulthood, they gain wisdom through experience. They can begin to think more deeply about existential questions. They exhibit better self-control. A child, on the other hand, is “a blank slate,” only beginning to discover the world — so many things are new and, therefore, misunderstood.
But because the adult mind is well-formed — with opinions and preconceptions — its firmness often impedes growth and experience. In contrast, a child’s mind, being fresh, freer and less self-conscious, welcomes everything. As Maria Montessori points out, it is young children, not teenagers or adults, who are the greatest testament to the mind’s tremendous capacity to absorb information. And because this absorption is cleaner, the material sinks more deeply into the mind, and leaves a lasting impression.
Ink on fresh paper
In Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) we find a related commentary. “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.”
The goal of the entire work, Pirkei Avot, is to provide extra ethical advice — beyond the parameters of Torah law — to enhance one’s daily life. The message in the first clause is understood: to stress the enduring effects of early education. The author himself is speaking from experience; having been a child-prodigy whose mother frequently brought to the study hall, even as a small boy, he attained a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge in his youth. So, it is understandable that he should appreciate the benefit and encourage others to learn as much as possible as a child (or to immerse their children).
Had the passage stopped there — without the comparable deficiency of one’s pursuit of knowledge in adulthood — the point would be clear and constructive. But what is the value of the second clause, that “ink inscribed on erased paper has a dulled result”? There seems to be no benefit to the reader in highlighting that learning as an adult is more challenging and limited. Furthermore, what if someone, through no fault of their own, never had the opportunity to learn Torah in childhood? In fact, such a statement may even provoke discouraging thoughts like maybe it is too late to make up for the precious time lost.
Chronological age and attitudes
Responding to this difficulty in the text, the Lubavitcher Rebbe offers a beautiful commentary which uncovers a broader message in these words: The Mishna is not speaking only about the being old and young in years, but also in mentality. Regardless of our chronological age, we can and must regain the mental virtues of youth.
Rereading the Mishna, the words “who learns Torah as a young child” are interpreted to mean “like a young child” — with the same qualities of freshness and curiosity that allow for better absorption. In contrast, a person who learns “like someone who is old” has a more rigid mentality that impedes learning and enjoyment.
More specifically, how someone approaches a Torah subject — or any subject for that matter — determines the level of retention and impact. Do you approach the material like a seasoned skeptic or scholar, poised to pull the trigger and offer your own insights and evaluation before properly digesting the material? Or do you come to the table inquisitive and thirsty, with an open and flexible mind, intent to listen and absorb the wisdom?
In Jewish mystical terminology, the most vital ingredient for spiritual development — the essence of wisdom (chochmah) — is a state called bittul, which involves a natural self-forgetfulness to allow for absorption. For an adult, achieving this intellectual humility and lightness takes work but the quality of “childlikeness” can be restored.
In a broader context, the above qualities being young or old apply to all aspects of life. Someone who is old believes that he or she has already sized up the world and understands how things work. There is a diminished sense of surprise at one’s surroundings. Furthermore, the drive to define oneself and establish an identity, to find one’s place within the community or professional world, further interferes with the mind’s ability to remain vibrant and curious. Constant calculation or skepticism becomes a means of self-protection.
In contrast, children are not embarrassed to ask questions. They do not need to monitor their progress — they have nothing to lose. Nor are they threatened to say, “I don’t know” or afraid to try conquering new fields. There is no subconscious limit to what they think they can learn.
Interaction with other people
These same qualities of youthfulness (e.g., flexibility and simplicity) and age (rigidity and calculation) also affect interpersonal relationships. Most adults, as they reach a certain age and level of accomplishment, subconsciously change the way they view, speak to, and act toward those younger and who they see as being in a “lower position.”
Again, calculation is normal. The more a person is worthy of respect, the more deference is shown. The more the person is seen to be beneath them — an employee, a cashier at the store, a child — the less natural interest and appreciation. But someone who stays young inside, more readily sees the virtues of each person, regardless of status and appearance.
From a deeper angle, everything physical changes and deteriorates with time; the soul does not. Someone steeped in the material world, focuses on form, so sees differences between people. And because their identity is so tied to the physical, they become dejected as they see themselves aging.
In contrast, when you identify strongly with your soul (and its happiness) rather than just the body, the mental virtues of youth are preserved. It becomes easier to look outward and love, to recognize the beauty inside others. It is as if the mind’s association with the ageless, weightless soul continues to bring insights and further growth, which also refines the body.
The power of youth
As we enter the month of Elul, one message for us is to try undo the inner barriers of adulthood. Here, staying young is not about finding the right cosmetics and treatments to hide aging — it’s a force that comes from the inside and affects every aspect of our lives.
So, while we get older in years — raise children, become more established in our careers, with defined our values and beliefs — we must strive to re-enter the mindset of a child and renew our curiosity, humor, joy, sensory experience and wonder at the world in front of us.
As we fight the urge to think that we already have mastered or understood, or already possess the answers, we can shift into a fresh mode of re-evaluating, as if approaching what we hear and learn from scratch. Then the wisdom we gain will be both deeper and everlasting.