Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh

The Songs of our LivesIt was really an extraordinary sight!!! A totally unexpected, amazing and startling scene!! During our congregational trip to Israel this summer, we visited Masada, King Herod’s mountain fortress in the Judean desert, the site of the last stand of the Zealots against the Roman Legions in 72 CE.  Our group had the opportunity to stop at the remains of a synagogue that is atop Masada that dates back 2000 years and was unearthed some fifty years ago by archaeologists.  During the course of the dig, archeologists found fragments of Biblical scrolls including the “Vision of the Dry Bones” in the Book of Ezekiel.  Portions of the books of Deuteronomy were also found under the floors of the ancient synagogue.  The synagogue is one of the very few discovered so far that date from the Second Temple period.   As is this was not breathtaking enough, we entered a small room to the right of the main section of the synagogue and there was a scribe, a living scribe, sitting in a climate controlled glass cubical, writing a Sefer Torah – a Torah scroll. He smiled and waved at us as he comfortably sat above the very place where those ancient remnants of scrolls were found. The biblical source for the command that every Jewish person should at some time in their lives write a Torah scroll is found in this week’s Torah reading. G-d tells Moshe, “Now, therefore write down for yourselves this song, that this song may be My witness with the people of Israel.” If we understand the text in its plain meaning, this command is addressed to Moses and Joshua and refers to the song, or poem, that comes in the next chapter of the Torah. According to our tradition, however, the commandment is addressed not only to Moses and to Joshua but to the entire people of Israel in every generation. Again, according to tradition, the “song” is not the 43 verses of poetry that follows, but the entire Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Every Jew is to write for him or herself a complete Torah at least once in their lifetimes. Not everybody has the time or the talent to write a Torah scroll. There are 304,805 letters that need to be carefully written. For an expert, like the scribe at Masada, this takes about a year. So the custom has arisen that the scribe will leave some of the letters of the Torah scroll in outline only. By filling in one or several letters, a person is considered to have fulfilled the commandment to write a Torah in their lifetime. Imagine that!!! If the deeper meaning of this verse is that each person should write a Torah in their lifetimes, why does the text call the Torah a “shirah” – which means, in Hebrew, a song or a poem?  One rabbi in the 19th century, who we know as the Netziv, writes that although the Torah is written mostly in prose, it is, in fact more like a work of poetry. Torah is more like poetry in that it leaves more unsaid than said. Like the language of the Torah, the language of poetry is spare — and in its sparseness it leaves us greater room to ponder its meanings. Poetry is much more open to interpretation than prose. Prose carries its meaning primarily on the surface; poetry, like the Torah, begs us to search for deeper meanings. Poetry, with its use of metaphors is allusive, rather than explicit. Like the Torah, poetry’s meaning may hinge on an ambiguous word, on the structure of a sentence, even on the structural form of the poem itself.    Since the Torah, like poetry, can be understood on many different levels, it is open to differing interpretations. This, in turn, leads to disagreements among the sages as to the true meanings and implications of some Torah verses.  As we all know, one of the strengths of our tradition is its openness to questioning and to its tolerance for disagreements. Just as an example, three hundred and sixteen disagreements between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai are preserved in the Talmud. Although the rabbis sided with Hillel most of the time, both were considered “the word of the Living G-d.”  According to another commentator,[1] the reason the Torah is called a “shirah” or “song” – is because the many different voices of our tradition blend together in harmony to form the beautiful symphony that is Judaism.  There is perhaps a third reason that the Torah is referred to as a song or a poem.  Prose primarily addresses the intellect.  Poetry primarily addresses and speaks to human emotions.  The Torah is meant to not only be understood by our minds, but felt and taken into our hearts. Torah should sink into our very depths, penetrate our very souls, and enter places in ourselves where perhaps mere words cannot gain access. Torah is meant to stay with us, like a song that we cannot get out of our heads. Torah is the very soundtrack of the committed Jewish life, the poetry of our existence. Witnessing the scribe on top of Masada writing this age old love song between G-d and the Jewish people affirmed the love and continuation of our eternal traditions. Shabbat Shalom    

[1] Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein Arukh Hashulchan