BeShalach: Listening to the Old ...


Truly Listening

As the Israelites began their sojourn in the desert, they found themselves without water to drink. With Divine counsel, Moses was able to sweeten the bitter waters of Marah; then he admonished the people to follow God's instructions carefully:

"If you truly listen ('shamo'a tishma') to God's voice and do what is upright in His eyes, carefully heeding all His commandments and keeping all His decrees ..." [Ex. 15:26]


In Biblical Hebrew, verbs are emphasized by adding the gerund form before the verb - "shamo'a tishma." The Talmud often infers additional meanings from this grammatical repetition. In this case, the Sages taught an important lesson about learning Torah:

"If 'shamo'a' - you listen to the old - then 'tishma' - you will merit listening to the new. But if you turn away (from the old), you will no longer hear." [Berachot 40a]


This statement is unclear. What is meant by 'old' and 'new'? What special promise is hinted in the doubled verb, "shamo'a tishma"?

Love for Torah

There are two reasons why people are drawn to study Torah. The proper motivation is a love for Torah based on an awareness of its intrinsic value - what is called lishmah, the study of Torah for its own sake.

Torah lishmah means awareness of the holiness inherent in the act of studying Torah. One should recognize the Torah's quality of elevating the individual and the world with the light of Divine morality. Even regarding the practical side of Torah, we should sense "the Godly soul that is found within the ensemble of the Torah's details, perfecting the universe - in life, in the physical and the spiritual realms, in the community and the individual" [Orot HaTorah 2:2] .

A second motivation to study Torah is the natural desire to satisfy one's intellectual curiosity, just as with any other science or area of study.

Reviewing the Old

When is the difference in motivation for Torah study most pronounced? The true test comes with regard to 'the old' - when reviewing material already learned.

If our principle motive is merely intellectual curiosity, then such study will be unappealing and even burdensome. If, however, we are studying the Torah for its true value, as a revelation of God's blueprint for perfecting the world, then it is unimportant if the material is not new to us. The value of Torah study is in the very act of assimilating this Divine revelation, in 'uniting' our thoughts with the holy concepts revealed in the Torah.

One who studies Torah lishmah internalizes its teachings. Such a person 'possesses' the Torah he has studied; it becomes a part of him [see Kiddushin 32b]. Then, as the Talmud predicts, "he will listen to the new" - he will be able to hear original Torah thoughts from within himself. Second century sage Rabbi Meir taught:

"All who engage in Torah study for its own sake merit many things .. The secrets of Torah are revealed to them, and they become like a spring that flows with ever-increasing strength and a stream that never ceases." [Avot 6:1]


The student who studies Torah lishmah becomes a fountain of creativity, contributing his own innovative explanations and insights. The 'new' isn't just new to him, but new to the entire world.

One who turns away from previously learned material, on the other hand, is demonstrating that his real motivation is only natural intellectual curiosity. This person, the Sages warned, "will no longer hear." Even new ideas will no longer be of interest. Such an insensitive soul will not merit even the normal measure of curiosity with regard to Torah wisdom.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II, p. 185]

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