According to the Talmud (Shabbat 147b), “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Perhaps not in those exact words, but this page speaks of a Rabbi, Elazar ben Arakh, who was the most promising (and perhaps favorite) student of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) describes Rabbi Elazar as “an ever-flowing spring.” The Talmud, in Sotah 49b, describes Rabbi Akiva in a similar, positive way, ascribing to both sages “the talent of innovation and creative ability in Torah study.” However, Rabbi Akiba is heavily quoted throughout rabbinic literature, but Rabbi Elazar is barely mentioned at all.
Why? Shabbat 127 gives us a clue. In the midst of various discussions of what may and may not be carried on Shabbat, whether or not something can contract ritual impurity, and why one shouldn’t wear new shoes for the first time on Shabbat (because if they hurt, the person might taken them off and carry hem), comes a discussion about going to the bathhouse on Shabbat, a place named Deyomset is mentioned.
It’s apparently a beautiful place with much water, but according to the sages, a place devoid of Torah. The story goes, “Once Rabbi Elazar ben Arach happened to come there, to Phrygia and Deyomset, and he was drawn to them, and his Torah learning was forgotten. When he returned, he stood to read from a Torah scroll and was supposed to read the verse: “This month shall be for you haĥodesh hazeh lakhem” (Exodus 12:2), but he had forgotten so much that he could barely remember how to read the Hebrew letters. Instead he read: “Have their hearts become deaf haĥeresh haya libbam, inter-changing the reish for dalet, yud for zayin, and bet for khaf. The Sages prayed and asked for God to have mercy on him, and his learning was restored.
This story seems extreme to be, that such a promising sage would practically forget the Hebrew alphabet, but it does make a point–if we don’t use it, we lose it. For decades now, scientists and doctors have been looking at ways to help keep our brains and bodies young; not necessarily to turn back the clock, but so we can be as physically and mentally healthy as possible, for as long as possible. Why is one 95-year old woman as sharp as a tack, while her 80-year old friend can’t concentrate on a card game? The answer is complicated, and I’m not qualified to answer it, but if Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is any indication, keeping up our skills requires continually engaging in activities that will challenge us. It also requires that we include others in our activities, which isn’t always so easy, especially during this pandemic.
Praying for mercy to have our learning restored can’t hurt, but learning from Rabbi Elazar’s experience can help us continue to be our best selves as we age.