At a place in the desert called Marah, Moses sweetened the bitter waters so the people would have water to drink. Then he admonished them that they should listen carefully — shamo'a tishma — to God’s voice (Ex. 15:26).
Why is the verb ‘to listen’ ("shamo'a tishma") repeated? In Biblical Hebrew, the grammatical structure of combining the infinitive with the conjugated verb is used to place emphasis. Thus shamo'a tishma means “you will listen carefully.” The Talmud, however, often infers additional meanings from this repetition. In this case, the Sages derived an important lesson about Torah study:
“If shamo'a — if 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 needs clarification. What is meant by ‘old’ and ‘new’? What special promise is hinted in the double verb, shamo'a tishma?
There are two reasons why people are drawn to study Torah. The first motivation is the natural desire to satisfy one’s intellectual curiosity, just as with any other area of study.
However, the proper motivation for Torah study should be a love for Torah that is based on an awareness of the Torah’s intrinsic value. This is called Torah lishmah - the study of Torah for its own sake.
Studying Torah lishmah means that one is aware of the holiness inherent in the very act of studying Torah. This level of Torah study requires one to see the universal light that permeates each and every detail of the Torah, and recognize the Torah’s ability to elevate the individual and the entire world with the light of Divine morality.
“We must sense the Godly soul to be found within the ensemble of the Torah’s details, perfecting the universe — in life, in the material and spiritual realms, for the collective and the individual.” (Orot HaTorah 2:2)
When is the disparity between different motivations for Torah study most pronounced? The true test comes with regard to ‘the old’ — when reviewing material previously learned.
If our principal motive is merely intellectual curiosity, then such study will be unappealing and even burdensome. Why should one find reviewing old material to be interesting? If, however, we are studying the Torah because of its true inner value, because it is a revelation of God’s blueprint for perfecting the world, then the newness of the material is not important. The value of Torah study comes from 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. Thus, the Sages taught, one ‘possesses’ the Torah he has studied, for it has become an integral part of him (see Kiddushin 32b). With this level of identification with the Torah and its teachings, “he will merit listening to the new” — he will be able to hear original Torah thoughts from within himself.
Rabbi Meir expressed this idea in Avot 6:1:
“All who engage in Torah study for its own sake merit many things…. The secrets of Torah are revealed to them. They become like a spring that flows with ever-increasing strength and a stream that never ceases.”
The scholar who studies Torah lishmah becomes a fountain of creativity, contributing his own innovative explanations and insights. When the Sages taught that this person “will merit hearing the new,” this ‘new’ isn’t just new to him, but new to the entire world.
One who is disinterested in reviewing previously learned material, on the other hand, is demonstrating that Torah study is only an intellectual pursuit. This person, the Sages warned, “will no longer hear.” Even new ideas will fail to pique his interest, for he will come to lack even the normal measure of curiosity with regard to the Torah’s wisdom.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 185)