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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Vayelech: Singing the Song of the Torah

The final mitzvah of the Torah is found in the parasha of Vayelech. Having introduced the “song” that will constitute nearly all of the following parasha, Ha’azinu, the people are commanded:

וְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. (דברים לא:יט)

Now therefore write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel (Devarim 31:19)

This song tells the story of the Jews’ fidelity, or lack of it, to Hashem and His mitzvot, and the way in which they are punished, or protected, at various stages of their history. The song must therefore be transcribed, and learnt, so that this message of reward and punishment permeates the Jewish psyche.

In line with the simple meaning of the verse, Rashi (11th century France) explains that the words הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת - “this song” - refer to nothing more or less than the verses of Devarim 33:1-43.

The Ramban concurs, and adds that it is appropriate to call this section a “song” because it will be recited by the people in a tuneful way, and it is written in the Torah in the style of a song (i.e. with spaces between each clause).

Yet the Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) learns from this verse the mitzvah to write much more than one chapter - but the entire Torah itself. Thus the very last mitzvah in the Torah is the one that ensures the perpetuation of the Torah, by obligating each Jew to create their own copy in the form of a Sefer Torah. 

As the Ralbag (14th century France) observes, the Torah records that Moshe fulfilled the instruction, with the words  (Devarim 31:24):

וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לִכְתֹּב אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר עַד תֻּמָּם.

It happened, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished,

suggesting that Moshe understood that he was required to write much more than just “the song”.

But how can “this song” be interpreted as referring to the entire Torah? 

The Rambam (12th century Egypt) gives a technical answer to this question. The essence of the obligation is to write the text of the song, but that would constitute an incomplete Sefer Torah (because the other 176 chapters are missing). Since a Sefer Torah cannot be left in an incomplete form, the entire Sefer Torah must be written (Hilchot Sefer Torah 7:1). (The question is asked why this would not apply to a mezuza or tefillin, which are also “incomplete Sifrei Torah”).

The Ktav VeKabalah (19th century Germany), explains that the essential message of the song (i.e. Devarim 32), is that the Jewish people should remember and fulfil all the mitzvot of the Torah. The relationship between the song and the entire Torah can therefore be compared to that between a doctor’s prescription and the medicine that that prescription mandates. Even without being told, a patient realises that the piece of paper that the doctors gives to them is infinitely less significant than the fulfilment of its instruction to take the appropriate pills. Similarly the song, which reminds its recitiers to keep all of the mitzvot, is nothing without the rest of the Torah to accompany it.

But it is the explanation of the Emek Dvar (19th century Lithuania) that I find most beautiful and most inspiring. He asks why the Toah should be called a song, when it is not written in the form of a song? Yet the answer is found in the two crucial characteristics that the Torah shares with a song.

The first is that a song, or a poem, is not as easy to understand as a piece of prose. One who analyses a poem needs to work out that one metaphor alludes to a particular story; another contains a hidden reference to another incident. This is not a “drasha” (rabbinic exegesis) but the actual meaning of the poem. But one who has no ability or experience with which to understand the song’s true meaning, will interpret it in absurd ways that were never the intention of the author.

And so it is with the Torah. Its meaning is not easily discernible, and can only be uncovered with effort, practice, and instruction from experts. 

The second characteristic of a song is that it may contains additional hints and allusions that are not found in the song’s words themselves, but, for instance, in an acrostic that is formed by the initial letters of each line, or in some other structure, which would not be found in a piece of prose. The author may have to twist the language a little in order to make a pattern of words or lines work effectively in this way. Similarly the Torah, in order to convey more obscure messages, will change one word for another, or re-structure a verse. 

With this explanation, the Emek Dvar is encapsulating the entire approach that we have to learning Torah. It is not a simple, one-dimensional, text, to be read and understood at first glance (let alone can its true meaning be conveyed in translation). Its profound message can only be revealed by patient and careful study of the many layers of interpretation - some of which may appear quite different from the “simple meaning”.

The Emek Dvar states, inter alia, the more that a student of the song works to understand its true message, the sweeter the text becomes. As we come close to the Torah’s conclusion, aware that this year, in Melbourne we will not be able to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah since our lockdown is not yet over, we will have to find another way to express our love for our most sacred book, that sits at the centre of our lives. We can remember that the Torah is a beautiful song, and as we dedicate ourselves to its profound study, we can hear its tune, grow attached to its words, and in that way, the love will grow.

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