"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 paper."
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. As a result, our memories become decreasingly 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 -- of thinking and of 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 aptitude for math or for music. Many skills, if not acquired earlier in life, will be difficult if not impossible to acquire in later years.
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 are ones of peace, harmony and Jewish values. Most of us carry baggage we picked up early on which we're very hard put to cast aside today.
(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've 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 will learn things the hard way themselves.
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.
On a different note, the commentator Rabbeinu Yonah takes pains to "cheer up" Pirkei Avos's 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 us 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 is not a whole bunch of facts to memorize. It reflects G-d's will and knowledge, and its wisdom has the relevance and timelessness 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.