Parshat Vayelech: Singing the Torah

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the last days of Moshe Rabbeinu as he turns to the nation.

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the last days of Moshe Rabbeinu as he turns to the nation openly and says, “Today, I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come.” Moshe, the Jewish nation’s first leader, who took the nation out of Egypt, who brought down the two tablets from Mount Sinai and led the nation with great dedication during its 40-year journey through the desert, is parting from the nation. But not before appointing the next leader – Yehoshua bin Nun.
What was the farewell gift Moshe Rabbeinu left for Am Yisrael? We read in the Torah portion about the last of the 613 commandments that Moshe wrote in the Torah: the commandment to write a Torah. It says as follows: And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths… (Deuteronomy 31:19) This verse can be understood as hinting at Shirat Ha’azinu, the song appearing in the next Torah portion, and several commentators indeed understood it that way. But the sages of the Talmud understood this verse as referring to the entire Torah: “Even though one’s ancestors left him a Torah scroll there is a mitzva to write one on his own, as it says ‘And now, write for yourselves this song.’” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin, 21b) This reading raises a question – Why is the Torah referred to here by the unusual term “song”? Why is it in this specific commandment that we find this term and not in the other mitzvot of the Torah? Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein (a Russian rabbi of the 19th and early 20th centuries, author of a series of books on Halacha called Aruch Hashulchan) wrote a wonderful thought on this: “Any argument between Tanaim and Amoraim, or between Geonim and Poskim (halachic arbitrators), whose genuine aim is to get to the bottom of an issue, represents the words of the living G-d and has halachic status. Moreover, it glorifies our holy and pure Torah, which we call a song, the beauty of the song being that the voices are all different. This is why its nature is so delightful. And whoever wanders the sea of Talmud will see different beauty in all the voices that are different from one another.” (Introduction to Aruch Hashulchan-Choshen Hamishpat) Meaning, the plurality of opinions, disputes, methods and styles of understanding the Torah is not a fault. On the contrary, it is on purpose. And it is the incredible symphony of these different voices that combine to form an incredible creation that captures the hearts of all who hear it.
That is the uniqueness of the Torah. In another place, we find a surprising utterance: Rav Yanai said: If the Torah had been given parsed (clear and as a finished product) it would not have continued to exist. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, Halacha B) The Torah was purposely given in a way that allowed various conclusions to be drawn from it. And indeed, anyone who is familiar at all with the world of Halacha knows that there is almost no Halacha that is not somehow disputed. These disputes have lasted for thousands of years without reaching clear-cut determinations? Again – this is not a fault in the system.
It is purposeful so that it would continue to exist; meaning so that every person would have a strong foundation in Torah that he could lean on.
But for this, a person must learn Torah. A superficial reading and quick, impulsive conclusions are not the way to get to the depths of the Torah. A person must work to learn Torah, to study it day and night, and only then can he join that same wide circle of different opinions about which it is said, “These and also those are the words of the living G-d.” (Unfortunately, today, there are many people who do not get to the depths of Torah and Halacha, but wish to change and explain the Torah despite their limited knowledge of Torah).
Therefore, the term “song” was used in reference to the commandment to write a Torah scroll. The writing symbolizes man’s strong connection to the Torah.
When a person writes a Torah for himself, he studies it again and again, delving into it, examining and comparing, and then he can add his understanding to the same symphony of different notes, notes that unite to create that amazing creation – the Song of the Torah.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.