The peroration that dominates chapter 28 in the book of Deuteronomy is followed by a passage at the beginning of chapter 29 that features a mysterious verse. Given the central focus of the consequences of loyalty and disloyalty to God that is chapter 28, chapter 29 can seem an afterthought. However, to overlook the verse in question would be a mistake considering the lesson that is deduced from it.
The verse in question (Deuteronomy 29:4) tells that for the forty years of travelling through the wilderness the clothes of the Israelites never wore out. On its face, this fact seems patently absurd. Wear and tear are inevitable. Considering the difficulty of the terrain and the daily tasks of life, some clothes would surely have been torn, not to mention outgrown. The Talmudic teacher Rabbi Yossi ben Hanina was less troubled by how clothes could be saved from wear than by which clothes were intended. He says that the clothes they wore did not wear out, but the clothes they packed away did (Devarim Rabbah 7:11)! Rabbi Hanina takes a difficult verse and makes it even more so.
Perhaps Rabbi Hanina – by amplification – intended to make the narrative seem more miraculous. But there is another possibility. Rabbi Hanina offered a lesson in life more than an interpretation of the Torah. What we use remains in working order as long as we continue to use it properly. A story is told about a fellow who discovered an old clock in the attic and brought it to a watchmaker for repair. The watchmaker examined it and said that clocks that are off by minutes and even hours can be repaired. But he could only repair timepieces that were kept running. The old adage is true: use it or lose it.
Things stored away grow old from disuse. In anatomical terms this is called muscular atrophy. Bed-ridden patients require physical therapy to prevent muscles unused from shrinking and becoming useless. Our brains must be exercised if we are to remain intellectually sharp. And, importantly at this time of year, we must apply our conscience. If we do not try to live better and wisely, we stagnate morally.