How do we ensure that in spite of aging physically, we never really get old?
R’ Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was one of the early leaders in the Chasidic movement. He was the primary talmid of R’ Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch. And after the Maggid’s passing, R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch stream of chassidut, regarded him as his rebbe. In 1777, R’ Menachem made aliyah along with about 300 of his talmidim. One of his holy sefarim entitled פרי הארץ [Pri ha-Aretz, ‘Fruit of the Land’] contains novel teachings from the Torah portions based on chassidut and Kabbalah. In addition, it contains a collection of letters, entitled אגרות קודש [Igrot Kodesh, ‘Holy Letters’] that he wrote to his talmidim. In this essay, we will share some of his insights from one of those letters that he sent to his talmidim in Russia and Poland in the late 18th century.
A fundamental principle in learning Torah is taught in Yoma 29a: מִיגְמָר בְּעַתִּיקְתָּא קַשְׁיָא מֵחַדְתָּא (Relearning old [material that was learned previously] is more difficult than learning new [material]). Why is this so? It probably comes down to the dangers of arrogance, i.e. “I already learned it; I don’t need to go over it again.’ But we must be on guard not to treat Torah like some secular subject we learned in school. After all, how many adults go back each year and review grade school arithmetic? However, we all, no matter our age, no matter our level, go back again and again year after year and relearn the Chumash. Why is this? Because the Torah isn’t a secular subject—it is a gift from G‑d, from the Ein Sof, which means that the Torah is itself infinite. There will always be something more to discover, something deeper to understand. Five plus five equals ten. And that’s pretty well the end of that. But בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ (In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth) is literally endless. Page after page of commentary has been written over thousands of years attempting to delve into the meaning of just these 28 letters. In fact, the Tikkunei Zohar expounds just the first word בְּרֵאשִׁית [Bereshit, ‘In the beginning’] in 70 different ways in almost 150 pages to uncover a plethora of deep esoteric truths regarding the workings of the upper worlds! Try to do that with 5+5=10 and see if you don’t end up in an asylum.
Although we all may acknowledge that reviewing our Torah on a constant basis is important so that we don’t forget our learning, G‑d forbid, even here we must be on guard. Reviewing the same thing over and over again—without protective mechanisms put in place (see below)—will inevitably lead to the fulfillment of the popular adage ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ This warning is stated explicitly in the Torah itself (Berachot Yerushalmi 9:5): אָמַר רִבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר בּוּן אִם נִתְייַשְּׁנוּ דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה בְּפִיךָ אַל תְּבַזֶּה עֲלֵיהֶן מַה טַעֲמָא וְאַל תָּבוּז כִּי זָקְנָה אִמֶּךָ (R’ Yosi bar Bun said, If words of Torah become old in your mouth do not despise them. What’s the reason? [It is written in Mishlei 23:23]: ‘And do not be contemptuous of your mother when she is old’). So how do we keep Torah fresh without it becoming old to us?
R’ Menachem Mendel writes that it is vitally important to keep the Torah concealed: ואמרתי ‘הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר’ למען יהיה בעיניהם כחדשים (And I said, ‘I will surely conceal’ [see Devarim 31:18] in order that it will be in their eyes like new things). Here, he reveals to us a very deep secret found, oddly enough, among the ‘curses’ of the Torah. The entire verses states: וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כׇּל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל־אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים (I will surely conceal My face in that day for all the evil that it [the nation] will have done in turning to other gods). R’ Menachem comes to teach us that even when Hashem hides or conceals His face, it is only so that in the end, the Torah will be renewed and fresh in the eyes of his nation. The same principle holds true for us. If we want something to remain fresh and we want to prevent it from getting old, we must not speak about it too much. We must also, so to speak, conceal it. The more we speak about it, the greater the tendency of it becoming old.
What are the ‘eyes’ of which R’ Menachem speaks? They are the eyes of the שכל [seichal], i.e. the intellect or mind. Above all else, we must protect these eyes from getting old or viewing Torah as old. Yet, many holy sefarim have been published which draw out secrets from the deepest wells of our Torah and we’re not all running headlong to drink in of their waters. Why not? The prophet himself also admonishes us about this very thing (Yeshayah 55:1): הוֹי כׇּל־צָמֵא לְכוּ לַמַּיִם (Alas! All who are thirsty come to the water!). The answer is that חובת הלבבות [chovat levavot, the obligation of the heart], the inner aspects of the Torah which deal with the heart of man, which R’ Menachem equates with אור התורה [ohr ha-Torah, light of the Torah] and סתרי התורה [sitrei ha-Torah, secret aspects of the Torah] have become very old in our eyes. No doubt this is the deeper meaning of what R’ Nachman of Breslov taught (Sichot ha-Ran 51): גַּם אֵין טוֹב לִהְיוֹת זָקֵן הֵן חָסִיד זָקֵן וְהֵן צַדִּיק זָקֵן זָקֵן אֵין טוֹב כִּי צָרִיךְ רַק לְהִתְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל יוֹם לְהַתְחִיל בְּכָל עֵת מֵחָדָשׁ (Moreover, it’s not good to be old, neither an old chasid nor an old tzaddik—old is not good—for one must remain young, renewing oneself each day to begin each moment anew).
The learning of sitrei ha-Torah is the protective mechanism that we alluded to earlier. We have a Divine obligation to learn sitrei ha-Torah, at whatever level or depth we are capable, in conjunction with our ‘regular’ Torah learning because, if we do not, G‑d forbid, our Torah will become old. But learning sitrei ha-Torah is not just to prevent a negative. It’s to instill a positive benefit. And what is that benefit? We’ll quote directly from R’ Menachem and then provide an English rendering based on the Piryo Matok commentary: ומה יתרון לבעליו כי אם ראות עיניו וכל זמן שמזקין דעתו של אדם תש כח אמונתו ויראתו (What’s the advantage to a person who acquires knowledge of sitrei ha-Torah, if the eyes of his seichal have ‘seen’ but the words don’t pierce the heart, to rejuvenate it and renew it in emunah? The problem is that as a man’s da’at grows old, the power of his emunah and yirah [fear of G‑d] weaken). So the positive advantage is that by learning sitrei ha-Torah a person’s emunah and yirah are strengthened and invigorated throughout his entire lifetime.
But there’s a hitch. We can’t really internalize sitrei ha-Torah by listening to or sitting in lectures. The only way to truly internalize sitrei ha-Torah is to learn it on one’s own and then to pour it out in prayer to Hashem (Eichah 2:19): קוּמִי רֹנִּי בַלַּיְלָה לְרֹאשׁ אַשְׁמֻרוֹת שִׁפְכִי כַמַּיִם לִבֵּךְ נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֲדֹנָ-י (Arise and cry out [sing] at the peak of the watches of the night [i.e. chatzot ha-laylah, midnight]; pour out your heart before the presence of Adon‑ai). What do we pour out to Hashem in the middle of the night when the rest of our community is sleeping? According to R’ Menachem Mendel, we are to pour out from our hearts sitrei ha-Torah that we are currently learning, and beg Hashem to instill in us a renewed emunah for the morning! This is the secret of what is written in the very next chapter (Eichah 3:22-23): חַסְדֵי יְיָ כִּי לֹא־תָמְנוּ כִּי לֹא־כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו׃ חֲדָשִׁים לַבְּקָרִים רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ (The loving deeds of Hashem have not ended, nor have His mercies ceased; they are renewed for the mornings, abundant is Your emunah). Tying these two verses together, R’ Menachem writes: שפכו לפניו יתברך לבבכם ולבקרים מתחדשים רבה אמונתם (Pour out your heart before Him, may He be blessed, and they will be renewed for the mornings, abundant is their emunah). Read that a few times to make sure you get it. He changed a number of key words to make his point. It’s such a beautiful teaching.
This is actually the deeper meaning of what is taught in the Mishnah (Chagigah 2:1): אֵין דּוֹרְשִׁין…בַּמֶּרְכָּבָה בְּיָחִיד אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן הָיָה חָכָם וּמֵבִין מִדַּעְתּוֹ (Ma’aseh Merkavah [an esoteric topic in the Kabbalah that deals with the ‘workings of the Divine Chariot’ described in Yechezkel 1] may not be expounded by an individual unless he is a sage who is capable of understanding on his own). Why not? Because, as R’ Menachem points out, one must go over and over it, again and again—something which just is not possible in lectures—until one comes to a renewing of his emunah in his heart on a daily basis. This is what Ben Bag Bag was hinting at in his famous teaching (Pirkei Avot 5:22): הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה (Turn it over again and again because everything is in it, and that you should truly see in it, and become grey and old [physically, not mentally] in it, and do not stir from it, for you have no better portion than it).
But what if we spurn learning sitrei ha-Torah, G‑d forbid? What happens then? The sitrei [סתרי] ha-Torah turn into clouds that סתרו [sitro, hide, cover, conceal, obscure it], i.e. that cover the light of the Torah itself from our own hearts. Therefore, we should be very careful to devote a period of time each and every day (optimally during the night hours so that its learning will lean toward lishma [for its own sake]) to learn the ‘obligation of the heart’, the inner aspect of Torah, the light of Torah. This is, after all, the goal of what we recite each day in the Shema (Devarim 6:6): וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ (And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart). To conclude with the words of R’ Menachem Mendel: שיהיו בכל יום כחדשים בעיני לבבו וזהו עקר קבלת על מלכות שמים שלמה לחדש בכל יום תמיד את הישן כאלו היום נתנה (That they would be, each day, like new in the eyes of his heart, and this is the essence of accepting upon oneself completely and perfectly the yoke of the kingship of Heaven, to renew each day, constantly, the old as if it were given today).
Ultimately, each person needs to learn something that he is capable of understanding and that suits him and speaks to his heart. Each person will need to discover which sefarim he really connects with. This may take a bit of trial and error, but in the end, focus on those holy sources that speak directly to you. (Feel free to contact us if you’d like to discuss this further.) There are times when one must face the tough challenges in life alone. This is one of them. Nobody can do this for you. It’s not a team sport. It simply boils down to how much we really want to have the light of the Torah written into our hearts, i.e. how much we want to have a renewed emunah each morning and how much we really love Hashem.