Torah, Old And New (Edited Transcript)
The Torah is both old and new. It was given at Mount Sinai 3324 years ago yet it is as relevant today as it was then. In fact, the Torah emphasises the importance of newness, as we say in the first paragraph of the Shema, asher Anochi metzavecha hayom, “these things which I command you today,” as well as in the second paragraph of the Shema – found in this week’s parsha, Eikev – which says asher Anochi metzaveh etchem hayom, “which I command you today.” Rashi, quoting the Sifri, explains that the word “today” teaches us that the Torah should be new to us, as though it were given today.
So we see that although the Torah is old, we must view it as new. How do we do this?
The answer to this question lies in our parsha Eikev, in the opening words of the second paragraph of the Shema, which are Vehaya im shamo’a tishme’u el mitzvotai asher Anochi metzaveh etchem hayom, “And behold if you will listen to My commandments that I command you today.” The verse says shamo’a tishme’u, “if you will listen,” but the language is doubled, using the infinitive – shamo’a – as well as the future tense – tishme’u – when it could have just said Vehaya im tishme’u, instead of shamo’a tishme’u. Why does the verse use the double language?
Rashi gives us an answer, quoting the Gemara in Tractate Sukkah page 46b which says im shamo’a beyashan, tishma bechadash, if you will listen to the old, you will hear the new.
What does this mean?
Positive energy as a catalyst
The Maharal, in his commentary on Rashi, as well as the Kli Yakar both explain that Rashi is referring to the well-known principle of mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah brings along another mitzvah, and aveira goreret aveira, one sin brings along another sin. In other words, if we listen and observe the old, the new will follow suit.
Everything in life depends on momentum. Doing good and living life the way we are meant to generates positive energy which will bring other good things with it. When we are in that flow of positive energy, our actions generate further actions of positivity. And so, too, on the negative side; bad deeds bring further bad deeds in their wake. The key in life is not to ask where we are at the moment, but rather where we are headed and what the overall trend is. We know this principle from the business world: the way to assess whether a business is on the right track or not is to ask if it is on a positive trend or a negative one. This applies to business as well as to mitzvot and to every situation in life. We need to assess if there is a positive or negative trend. If the trend is negative, we can turn it around simply by doing positive things.
The depth of Torah
There is a second interpretation of the double language, shamo’a tishme’u, from another commentator on Rashi, the Siftei Chachamim. The Siftei Chachamim refers to Rashi’s comments on the Gemara in Sukkah mentioned above, and explains shamo’a tishme’u as follows: if you delve into the old and revise your learning, you will find new wisdom within it.
There is an interesting explanation of this concept found elsewhere, in Rashi’s comments on the Gemara in Tractate Shabbos, page 88b. The Gemara there talks about the importance of putting great effort into our learning, and Rashi there explains that putting great effort into our learning lada’at soda, to know the secrets of the Torah, brings great blessing.
Rav Mordechai Gifter, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, explains Rashi’s words as follows: the process of learning Torah is about uncovering the secrets therein. We tend to think of Torah knowledge – like other knowledge – in horizontal terms; we have to “cover ground” and get information. But, says Rav Gifter, Torah learning is different and is also vertical, which means that we are constantly uncovering one layer after another because there are always more secrets to be discovered in what we have already learned.
This discovery of hidden secrets, says Rav Gifter, is subjective, not objective; it is relative to each person’s level of knowledge and understanding. What one person knows may be yet unknown to another. He gives as an example the very first verse of the Chumash, “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.” When a child in grade one sees this verse for the first time, he learns the simple meaning of it. Then as he gets a little older, he learns the Rashi on this verse, where Rashi goes into the question of why the Torah starts with the description of Creation instead of starting with the very first mitzvah, since Torah is not a history book but a book of mitzvot. He will discover Rashi’s answer, which will change his whole perspective. And then, as he gets older, he will discover the Ramban’s commentary on that Rashi, and expand and deepen his understanding of the very same words. And so on and so forth: with each level of Torah we can go deeper and deeper. There are always more secrets to be discovered.
The way to uncover new ideas is by delving into the old because it is the wisdom of G-d and is therefore unlimited. We must think of Torah not only in horizontal terms, but in vertical terms as well because of its endless depth. This is the meaning of im shamo’a tishme’u: if we delve deeper into the old, we will find the new.
There is another aspect to this, alluded to in the words of Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, who said, “the Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow,” meaning that G-d gave the Torah for all times and all situations. Because it was given for eternity, there are things in the Torah which can only be fully understood in later generations. There are messages in the Torah which we don’t understand because we are not there yet.
For example, in this week’s parsha we have the mitzvah of tefillin. We know that tefillin are worn on the arm as well as on the head. The correct position for the tefillin of the head is above the hair line, or where the hair line used to be. The verse in our parsha says the tefillin should be bein eineichem, “between your eyes.” The Talmud explains that the Torah does not mean literally between the eyes on the bridge of the nose, but rather above the hair line, in alignment with the space between the eyes.
The question is, why did the Torah not just say above the hair line? Why does it say “between the eyes” if it doesn’t mean literally between the eyes? The oral tradition proves from another verse in the Torah that the correct location in above the hairline, and so we can deduce what the verse means. But still, what is the meaning of “between the eyes”?
In his commentary Haktav Vehakabalah, Rav Mecklenberg of 19th-century Germany offers the following explanation, and I’ve heard the same explanation in the name of a prominent American ophthalmologist: the eye is the organ of sight but it can’t see without being connected to the brain. There are nerves that connect the eyes to the brain. The right eye is connected to the left part of the brain and the left eye is connected to the right part of the brain. In order to be able to see a composite picture the two eyes have to be connected so that the brain is not processing two separate pictures. There is a point, called the optic chiasm, where the nerves of the right eye and the nerves of the left eye cross and link to the brain. And the fascinating thing is that the optic chiasm is located in the part of the brain where the tefillin are placed on the head.
This is what the Torah means by bein eineichem, between your eyes. It means the optic chiasm, where the nerves of the two eyes meet and connect to the brain. It’s exactly at that point where the brain processes the integrated picture between the right and left eye. We have relied on the oral tradition that bein eineichem means above the hair line, but now we can fully understand that indeed “the Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow.” This is what the verse Vehaya im shamo’a tishme’u means: if we delve into the old, we will find the new within it.
This teaches us an important principle, and that is that G-d’s wisdom was given to us for all times. True, the Torah is old. In fact, as the Talmud tells us, Hashem created the Torah even before He created the world. But the Torah has within it the wisdom, principles and values for all times. This means that if we want to work out how to cope with new situations in life the key is to look to the old and find within it the relevant wisdom. As long as we follow this path, looking into the old in order to find the new, we will be on the right track. This is actually what the second paragraph of the Shema is talking about – meriting a life of blessing if we follow the right path. We don’t have to look outside the Torah to find the right path. We don’t have to invent new values and ideas, for they are all there inside the Torah. G-d’s wisdom, given to us for all times and all situations, contains all the wisdom we need for hayom, for today.