It’s been two solid weeks of learning, teaching, professional development, curriculum development and preparation for an upcoming rabbi-in-residence weekend. Today, I stop to reflect before taking a ninety-minute certification test for the Interfaith Speakers Bureau (IFSB). I realize that I feel both exhilaration and dread.
It’s silly, I know, to be nervous about an open-book test on material that is within the scope of my expertise, ridiculous to allow my inner child’s test anxiety to resurface and interfere with my inner adult’s professional competence. But I can’t help it. While I’ve been almost completely occupied for two weeks by cramming new information and ideas into my brain, the back of my mind has allowed a mild preoccupation to creep in: can this middle-aged memory retain new information and ideas?
I am reminded of the words of Elisha ben Abuyah, a sage of the early Rabbinic period whose colleagues eventually shunned him for what they considered his heretical beliefs. One of his early statements, however, is preserved in Pirke Avot, a tractate of the Mishnah that contains aphorisms and ethical teachings of the first century rabbis:
“When a person studies as a child, to what may he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper.
When a person studies when he is old, to what may he be compared? To ink written on blotted paper.” (Avot 4:25)
This ancient teacher intuitively understood what experts of neuroscience now confirm about human memory: we have different channels and storage areas for memory, and often the lessons we learn in early childhood remain stored in our long term memory even as we have difficulty memorizing new facts.
I can still recite my street address that I learned when I was four or five years old, despite having moved from that home nearly four decades ago. But I can hardly remember what I read in yesterday’s newspaper, and in the last twenty four hours I’ve requested password retrieval from several online accounts that I visit every month to pay bills.
I can visualize Elisha ben Abuyah sitting at his desk, quill in hand, staring at an old parchment so dotted with ink splotches that fresh writing is absorbed and obscured. That is my brain—cluttered with telephone numbers and song lyrics from the 70’s, and several rabbinic adages learned in my youth—trying to discern what must be retrieved, whether anything can be purged.
To dispel the feeling of dread that impedes my studies, I summon a memory of the IFSB training session. Erasing the ink blots, I visualize this moment when Soumaya stretched one arm around me and Sucheta and the other in front of us, perfectly capturing the feeling of exhilaration that naturally accompanies sharing new ideas among friends.