VaYelech: Writing Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech

Today is a momentous day in the history of Rabbineal-list, for two
reasons. First, all year we’ve been reflecting on the mitzvot, the
commandments, of the Torah, as they present themselves in each weekly
parsha, and this week we’ve reached the very last mitzvah of the
Torah. Second, having spent a year studying the mitzvot, I think it’s
time to change themes in the coming year, and so we’re pleased to
announce that starting with the Torah portion Bereshit, after the fall
holidays, our weekly commentary will focus on the haftarah [text from
later Biblical books] associated with each week or holiday. We’ve
never done a haftarah commentary at Rabbineal-list HQ before- not
online and not “live”- so it’s going to be a great project for the
year to come.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled Torah portion, VaYelech, which
contains the final commandment of the Torah, which is for every person
to write a scroll of the Torah (but don’t break out the quills just
yet.) The rabbis derive this mitzvah from a passage in which Moshe is
told to write down “this song” [or poem], which in context probably
means the final passages of the Torah but which is taken to mean the
entire Torah itself:

“Therefore, you write down this poem and teach it to the people of
Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My
witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Again, in context, the “you” of the verse above seems to be Moshe, but
the rabbis expand the “you” to include everybody. [Women were not
understood by the ancient rabbis to be so obligated, but I would
certainly view this as an equal-opportunity mitzvah.] So by the time
we get to the middle ages, the mitzvah is for each man so qualified to
either write a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll] or have one written for his
use, so that the number of Torah scrolls is increased and people will
be more motivated to study from their own personal copy.

Some commentators say this includes writing (in the days before
printing) other sacred texts, like books of halacha or midrash
[rabbinic practices and interpretations]. One modern scholar (link
below) has suggested that the way to fulfill this mitzvah today is for
everyone to learn to read and properly chant the Torah text- the idea
is that the mitzvah of writing was to fix the text in a person’s mind,
and in our day, printed editions are plentiful but actually reviewing
them and learning them and deeply internalizing the text would be
better achieved through the work of learning and performing the
cantillation.

I think that’s a great interpretation, and I want to add another
(especially because Torah reading is hardly my strongest skill set).
Sefer HaHinnuch says that one needs to write (or commission) a sefer
Torah even if one already has one as an inheritance; that is, the
mitzvah is fulfilled through the process of writing or acquiring, not
about the end-result of ownership. To me, this teaches that we must
actively acquire our own Torah- that is, deep internalization of
Jewish narratives, values and wisdom- rather than simply “inheriting,”
or passively accepting, the Torah of a previous generation. That’s no
slight to anybody, but rather a basic truth that if you don’t acquire
it yourself, through study, reflection and questioning, the Torah
won’t be. . . . well. . . . . yours.

We can’t all write a scroll, and commissioning one is a big (but
entirely doable) project, but we can all take ownership, as it were,
of our own Judaism. Some Jewish books are timeless, and some suit well
a particular generation- each of us has to find the sources of
teaching and spiritual orientation which we can truly grow into. Each
of us will create a different library, have a different Sukkah or
tallit, make their Shabbat unique with family traditions as well as
universal liturgies. Writing or acquiring a Torah is a tremendous
mitzvah; internalizing Torah and making it alive through our actions
is an even bigger one.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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