Mishna 26: "Rabbi Yossi bar (son of) Yehuda of K'far HaBavli said: One who learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from the press. And one who learns from the old, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine."
Mishna 27: "Rabbi Meir (MAI-eer) said, do not look at the flask but what is in it. There are new flasks filled with old wine and old flasks which do not even contain new wine."
This week's two mishnas strike an interesting contrast with the previous mishna. Last week we learned that it is far more productive to study Torah in one's youth than in one's declining years. This is true in part because young minds are quicker and younger memories sharper, and in part because youngsters are still open to new ideas and can be molded by Torah wisdom and values.
Here R. Yossi tells us that it is preferable to learn Torah *from* an elderly scholar. It seems that while an older person is not as well-equipped to absorb new information, he is eminently qualified to give over what he does know. This is because whereas the young mind is more able to be shaped, the older mind -- one which experienced Torah study in younger years and continued beyond -- has not only been shaped by the knowledge of Torah but has hardened in it as well.
As the commentators understand, R. Yossi's point is that younger scholars are not yet fully composed in their study -- just as the lees of new wine have not yet settled at the barrel's bottom. They may have quick wits and lightning minds, but they lack the mature understanding of the Torah which results only through years of poring and reviewing. The advanced scholar, however, has matured in his wisdom and reflects much more fully developed Torah truths. He may lack some of the biting sharpness of the young genius -- and for this reason his lectures may not strike one as being quite as intellectually stimulating -- but the pathways of the Torah, in all their awe and grandeur, are illuminated to him, cleared of doubts, pitfalls and impediments.
The following story is told about R. Moshe Sofer (known universally after his work Chasam Sofer), of early 19th Century Hungary. There were two sharp, young scholars engaged in debate regarding some intricate Talmudic topic. The Chasam Sofer, then an older man, entered the room. They asked him his opinion on the matter. He stated an opinion which they quickly tore to pieces. He attempted to counter once or twice, but the young sharpies were far too much for him. He then retorted: "I know I'm right! In Judaism one older ignoramus is better than two young geniuses!" (Then, after allowing himself a few minutes to turn the matter over in his mind, he came back to them with irrefutable arguments in his favor.)
The message once again is that the mature scholar reaches beyond the point of being a good debater. He attains the bigger picture. He has a stronger sense -- as well as a better tradition -- for what the proper decision should be. The details sometimes must be worked out after.
There is a second benefit to learning from the elderly. The Torah teaches us that aging itself is an educating process. Leviticus 19:32 states: "Before the elderly rise, and show honor before the aged." The Talmud understands that one must respect not only an elderly scholar (a young one as well for that matter), but an unlearned elderly person as well, including a Gentile, provided he is not wicked (Kiddushin 32b-33a). (Jewish law requires rising in the presence of a person 70 years or older.) The reason for this is, as the author of the Torah Temimah comments, "for an ordinary elderly person has acquired wisdom through the many trials he has endured throughout the years of his life" (Torah Temimah to Leviticus there, note 241).
There is a form of seasoned wisdom an elderly person carries with him or her. It cannot be quantified or put into writing. But it reflects an understanding of the world and mankind which stems from years of accumulated wisdom and history. To study from such a person is to understand Torah principles as they apply to life and to see history -- Jewish history -- come to life.
(I personally happen to really cherish the relationships I have with older people -- in part because my own father OBM only lived till his early 70's. I feel such people open up new vistas, and windows to a different and fascinating world (part of my absolute infatuation with history) -- especially when we consider how mindbogglingly fast-changing our world has been over the past century.)
Lastly, an elderly Jew -- whether learned or not -- carries within him or her something else Judaism views as crucial to a proper education: tradition. He forms a link between the world today and previous generations. Judaism sees such people as invaluable and irreplaceable bearers of our heritage. What we know and everything we are today is on account of the "ordinary" Jews of yesteryear who preserved what they knew and passed it on to their children. For this too we look backwards, towards our forbears, for wisdom and guidance.
In the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) R. Yehuda HaNasi ("nasi" = minister or nobleman), known simply as "Rebbe" (REH-bee), explained that he is sharper than his colleagues because, "I saw R. Meir from behind." (R. Meir, author of Mishna 27 above, was one of the foremost scholars of the period of the Mishna -- living approximately two generations before the Mishna's close.) To this he concluded, "Had I seen his front how much greater would I have been!"
I've heard R. Berel Wein (http://www.rabbiwein.com) explain this passage figuratively, but actually quite compellingly. Rebbe lived at the end of an era. He was considered the last of the Sages of the Mishna. (He was the Mishna's editor.) His death marked the close of the period of the Mishna and the beginning the period of the Talmud -- and in spite of the centrality of the Talmud to Torah study today, the Sages of the Talmud knew they would never reach the level of scholarship of the Sages of the Mishna. (For this reason, the Talmud almost without exception never disagrees with decisions recorded in the Mishna.)
Rebbe attributed his greatness in Torah to having seen the back, i.e. the close, of the period of the Mishna. He saw the aging scholars of the generation before him before they died out. Had he seen their "fronts" -- R. Meir and the like in their prime -- how much greater would he have been.
We too, continued R. Wein, retain a glimpse of people from an earlier world. Jews who grew up in -- and were molded by -- pre-War Europe, saw a world no longer existent today. A recurring theme at such funerals (which unfortunately, we are privy to today on a regular basis) is that the faith and steadfastness of such individuals were so because they were cultivated in a very different world.)
I won't pretend that Jewish pre-War Europe was Fiddler on the Roof piety and tranquility. We were as vibrant and contentious as ever, and the number of anti-Torah movements was staggering, a few of them still with us today (or certainly their aftereffects). Yet the level of faith and devotion many Jews had -- even if they lacked a strong Torah education -- has simply not been matched in our proud new world of sophistication and superficiality. Jews were more Jewish. The reality of G-d's existence and the humble acceptance of the Jewish lot and mission were very much a part of their lives. Tradition was stronger, and Jews took a far greater pride in it. (Today young people hardly know if they're descended from Litvaks or Galitzianers. And 95% of my readers don't even know what that means!) :-)
It was further a world which, in spite of huge numbers of Jewish day schools, yeshivas and kosher conveniences of all kind, we have simply not been able to reproduce. The human relics of that age carry with them a piece of Jewish history -- a thousand years of European Jewish "shtetl" life which was ripped from us so tragically and suddenly. They form a living link to a grand and glorious past -- one exile less distant from the Judaism of the ancients and the revelation at Sinai. They, by their feeble and aged presence, serve as living testimony to our eternal history, a history that must be cherished and treasured till their last dying days.
Finally, our discussion is rounded off with R. Meir's rebuttal. In spite of the wisdom of R. Yossi's words, R. Meir takes issue. Age is a significant factor in understanding and disseminating Torah, but it is not the only one, nor is it the primary one. An elderly scholar is far superior to a youthful one of equal talents. But the overriding consideration must be the Torah itself. The elderly and our past can teach us lessons we must cherish and never forget, but they are only valuable if they are delivered with an equally strong message of Torah and observance. The Jewish nation has persevered in spite of tragedy, exile and uprooting. Great past Jewish civilizations -- Babylonia, North Africa, Spain, Turkey etc. -- have been lost and all but forgotten, but we have managed to rebuild each time through our commitment and dedication to the Torah. It has been the Torah, not our history, heritage or anything else culturally Jewish which has maintained us. And through this, we can retain and see true meaning in our past, yet build an even brighter and more meaningful future.