Nitzavim- Vayelech: Write for Yourselves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger


Torah Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech 


“And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel. . . ” 

Good afternoon! 

In both baseball and Torah portions, we’re in the final weeks of the season, heading into the home stretch. This week, in the double portion Nitzavim-Vayelech, we encounter the very last mitzvah of the Torah, derived from the verse above, that each person should write for themselves, or have written for them, a Torah scroll. We won’t go into the details of this mitzvah now, but you can click here and here for further study. For today, let’s just note that the context of the verse itself seems to be God telling Moshe that he should write down the words that God is teaching him, as it were, so that Moshe can in turn give it to the people and they can be held accountable. 

Going farther than the specific context of Deuteronomy, the ancient rabbis noted the “write for yourselves” is in the plural, and interpreted this to mean that each of us is to write the Torah for ourselves. One medieval commentary, the Sefer HaChinnuch, thinks that the point of this mitzvah is the ease of Torah study if we each has our own scroll (presumably, this comes from the days before printed books.) On the other hand, a Talmudic sage, Rabbah, says that even if your parents left you a Torah scroll, you still have to write one for yourself- that is, it’s not just about having one, it’s about making it yourself. 

This latter interpretation strikes me as teaching something important: it’s not enough to simply inherit your parent’s Torah- and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. It’s not enough to simply practice an inherited Judaism; “writing for ourselves” suggests making Judaism our own, making it live through the specific prism of our own lives, not just preserving an inheritance but also taking ownership of our religious experience. To be clear: this doesn’t mean we automatically reject the previous generations’ Judaism, it means that we build on it, embracing the confidence that each generation is responsible for doing Torah in this world according to its abilities and needs. 

That, to me, is a timeless message: we may inherit ancient texts, but we bring them to life in this day, not for the sake of the scroll of the Torah but for the creative soul of the Torah. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 
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