Parashat Vayelech: The Song of the Torah

This week’s parasha contains the last mitzva in the Torah. This commandment is phrased in a roundabout way that seems odd at first glance.

Painting by Meira Raanan (photo credit: MEIRA RAANAN)
Painting by Meira Raanan
(photo credit: MEIRA RAANAN)
This week, we read about Moses’s personal parting from the people of Israel prior to his death. Usually, when Moses wanted to convey God’s message to the nation, he gathered them together and delivered his speech. But in our parasha, when he came to deliver his parting words before dying, he gathered the energy of his 120 years and walked to the camp of Israel, where most of the nation lived. The parasha is called Vayelech (and he walked) because of this walk.
This week’s parasha contains the last mitzva in the Torah. This commandment is phrased in a roundabout way that seems odd at first glance.
It says the following: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths...”
(Deuteronomy 31:19) The sages of the Talmud learned from this verse that there is a special mitzva to write the entire Torah. The Rambam (Maimonides) explains the verse as such: “The Torah should be written with this song included in it.” If so, why is the Torah called a “song”? The great majority of the Torah is written as a text of laws or stories, and not in the style of a song.
In Tractate Megila, the Talmud quotes Rabbi Shefatya in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “If one reads the Torah without a melody or studies the Mishna without a tune, of him the Scripture (Ezekiel 20:25) says, ‘And I, too, have given them statutes that are not good.’” Meaning, whoever reads the Torah without a melody or studies the Mishna without a tune causes the laws of the Torah to be bad. This is a very odd utterance.
And indeed, in the Talmud, one of the sages asks: Because he cannot carry a tune, you say that he upset the laws of the Torah?! What was Rabbi Yohanan’s actual intention? Is there such significance to reading the Torah with a melody? As we all know, the Torah, which is the “written Torah,” does not stand alone. Without the “oral Torah,” great sections of the Torah would be incomprehensible.
Many commandments and verses were written obscurely and would not be understood without the oral Torah. Many commentators state that during the revelation at Mount Sinai, only the oral Torah and the tablets of the covenant were given, whereas the written Torah was written piecemeal during the course of the journey through the desert, and was signed by Moses before his death.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great thinker and commentator who lived and was active in Germany in the 19th century, defines the written Torah as a sort of “lecture summary” of the oral Torah. A person who receives notes from a lecture series that he himself did not hear will not understand most of the small emphases and inferences. When a person who heard the actual lectures comes and says that there is profound meaning in one of the words, he will be mocked and told that he is trying to “force” meaning into the text that the author may not have intended. But the person who heard the lectures knows full well upon which ideas the lecturer expanded and what he was implying in the few words he used.
The Natziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin and of the great Torah scholars about 150 years ago) said in the introduction to his commentary Ha’amek Davar that the term “song” was given to the Torah. The essence of the song is reading the messages that are embedded between the lines.
Whoever tries to read poetry or prose will err and misconstrue the intent of the poet, and so it is with reading the Torah. The Torah cannot be read as though it were a dry narrative that stands on its own. Rather, one must play the Torah’s “melody,” and discern its style with the help of the oral Torah and tradition. Only in this way can one comprehend and connect to the depth of its intent.
With the approach of the festival of Simhat Torah, when we finish reading the Torah and begin anew, let us all sing the Torah’s melody together, accurately reading its complex notes, and thereby enrich our souls with the depths of its tunes and the intricacies of its sounds.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.