New Old Torah

Chazal instruct us to approach Torah each day with the wonder and excitement of something new and fresh. This is both good advice and a tall order; familiarity and the sense of routine that accompanies it are hard to erase.

A famous physician once passed through Bluzhov, and the Chassidim prevailed upon him to examine their rebbe. With some anticipation in his voice, the doctor told the Rebbe that he had detected a potentially serious heart flutter. Unimpressed, the Rebbe asked the physician, “ Do you know what today is?”

Not aware that the day was anything special at all, he admitted that he did not.

“Today is the 3rd of Sivan. In three days time, we will receive the Torah. How could my heart not flutter?”

He lived to the age of a hundred.

While we envy the Rebbe’s kabbolas ha-Torah, we all take the opportunity to savor anew the privilege and sweetness of being able to cradle it in our hearts and minds. Making it a really new experience, of course, is easier said than done. One way to do it is perhaps overlooked by many, and can be life-altering. I once heard Dr. Shnayer Leiman call the following passage from (presented here in loose translation) his all-time favorite from the oeuvre of our chachamim after the close of the gemara. It indeed offers a way to make an old Torah new. I offer it here in the hope that some will find it useful in their preparations for Shavuos.

Chovos Ha-Levavos, Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh 3:24

A person ought to reconsider all the spiritual matters that he once settled and resolved in his mind. In his younger days, he formulated approaches to G-d and His Torah; to the words of Chazal; to the meaning of davening. Those same approaches remained with him as he grew older. Yet a person whose mind is less developed cannot appreciate subtleties; the comprehension of one whose mind is less developed cannot be as rich as that of someone whose intellect is mature and strong.

Therefore, do not satisfy yourself with approaches that you worked out in your younger days regarding difficult and complex issues. When your mind matures, revisit them. Look again at Chumash and the Nevi’im with a fresh outlook, as if you had never seen them before. Force yourself to consider them anew, explaining and expanding upon them. Examine words and expressions, and consider which explanations are appropriate. Which commentary accords with the plain sense of the words, and which does not. Which seem reasonable, and which are refuted by reason.

Treat davening the same way. Reexamine the words of the siddur and what they were intended to convey, so that when you stand before Hashem you are conscious of what your lips are saying, and what your heart means to express. (Do not conduct yourself as you did when you were young, when you simply spoke out the words you found in front of you, without any understanding of what you were saying.)

You should do the same with the words of Chazal and our mesorah, contemplating them and judging them favorably. This means appreciating their depth and richness, and therefore not contenting yourself with the formulations you put together when you were younger. Force yourself to approach them as if you had never considered them before. Whatever becomes clear to you, fix in your mind in a settled manner. What remains unclear, do not push aside but investigate further by taking counsel with the great minds of your generation, in a manner different from the way you first reached your earlier understanding. When you do all of this, you will gain access to the hidden secrets of our Torah and Sages, ideas you could never access through what your teachers taught you when you were young.

Do not fall prey to your inner pride, which tells you that you are not going to improve upon what you came to understand when you were younger, and that you are certainly incapable of uprooting what you have known since your youth so that you could approach it anew as something foreign and unknown. These arguments are nothing but the seduction of the yetzer hora, attempting to make you lackadaisical towards your obligation to deeply consider and analyze the truth of important concepts. Your yetzer hora tries to convince you of your great wisdom, and that you lack nothing that is important.

“The wise man has his eyes in his head (Koheles 2:14).” The wise man is always looking back towards where he came, examining his early Torah for the effect it had on him, differentiating between what has been good for his development and what has hindered his growth. He uses this awareness to strenghthen what has been helpful, and to replace what has not. The fool, on the other hand, never looks back. His sole concern is moving on. Even if he should look back, he is incapable of determining what has been helpful and what has not. Concerning him the pasuk continues, “The fool walks in darkness.”

None of us, hopefully, are the same people today that we were ten years ago or twenty years ago. We are capable of new insights and new comprehension. Revisiting specifically the most basic and fundamental issues in our Torah lives can be both challenging and exhilarating. It does provide us with a way to make sure that this year’s kabbolas ha-Torah is not the same as that of the year before.

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2 comments to New Old Torah

  • DF

    It’s a great passage, and I’ve also heard Dr. Leiman cite it. One does indeed see new insights as he gets older. But, I feel obliged to say, one also learns new approaches and methods, not all of which can be squared with traditional methods. And the pasasge from the Chovos Halevovos itself urges readers to seek the plain sense of the words [in Tanach, but presumably same would apply to Talmud.] Yet, as one grows older and wiser, one sees that much of what he had been taught in the past does not, in fact, accord with the plain sense of the text. The point is, if one TRULY follows this excellent advice of the Ba’al Chovos Helevovos, it may lead to unexpected results.

  • Dovid Kornreich

    “You should do the same with the words of Chazal and our mesorah, contemplating them and judging them favorably. This means appreciating their depth and richness, and therefore not contenting yourself with the formulations you put together when you were younger.”

    I should hope more Orthodox academicians would take this to heart and stop treating Chazal as if they were simpletons who uncritically echoed the conventional wisdom of their time.

    “The wise man has his eyes in his head (Koheles 2:14).” The wise man is always looking back towards where he came, examining his early Torah for the effect it had on him, differentiating between what has been good for his development and what has hindered his growth. He uses this awareness to strenghthen what has been helpful, and to replace what has not. The fool, on the other hand, never looks back. His sole concern is moving on.”

    Interesting how Dr. Menachem Kellner quotes Maimonides as giving the complete opposite message:
    Maimonides says in his letter to the Jews of Marseilles, “For is it not apparent that
    many statements of the Torah cannot be taken literally, but, as is clear from
    scientific evidence, require interpretation that will make them acceptable to
    rational thought. Our eyes are set in the front and not in the back. One should
    therefore look ahead of him and not behind him.”