Writing Our Song: A Reflection on Our Year of Learning
(Teaching/D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Sacks on May 22, 2022 on the occasion of our siyyum, the conclusion of our year of learning)
We will be arriving at Mount Sinai spiritually once again as continue our way through the Omer period and celebrate Shavuot. Our experience at Mount Sinai, our tradition suggests, led to a sense of a covenant with G!d. For our part we have taken on 613 mitzvot, “responsibilities.” I’d like us to focus on the very last one, at least as it appears in the Torah. Let’s look at this together in your program booklet.
Before Moses takes leave of his life, G!d has one last command for him, and through him, for the future.
וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם
לְמַ֨עַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“Now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me among the children of Israel”
God commands Moses and Joshua to write a song. Perhaps they are to each write one separately, but perhaps, and to my mind more probable, is that these two–representing the past leading to the present (Moses), and the present leading to the future (Joshua), are to write together. And what kind of song should they write? According to tradition, the song that they are to write out for themselves is the entire Torah.
Many of us were raised with the idea that the Torah had already been given on Mount Sinai, but that tradition is not in the Torah or anywhere else in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible). That is one strand of our tradition; the idea that the Torah was written not as a response to Mount Sinai but as a response to ending the wilderness period and to entering a new era is quite compelling.
This verse became the basis for commandment to write a Torah scroll. As Rambam states:
Every Israelite is commanded to write a Torah scroll for themselves, for the text states, “Now write this song,” meaning, “Write for yourselves [a complete copy of] the Torah…Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll from their parents, nonetheless it is a mitzvah to write one for oneself, and one who does so is as if they had received [the Torah] from Mount Sinai. One who does not know how to write a scroll may engage [a sofer, a scribe] to do it on their behalf, and whoever corrects even one letter is as if they had written an entire scroll.
This verse with its injunction brings up a number of questions we should consider, among which are:
- Why this command?
- Why then, at the end of Moses’ life?
- Why not when he was spryer?
- Why make it the last of all the commands?
- And why refer to the Torah as a shirah, “song”?
This tradition hints at a set of very deep ideas. First, it tells the Israelites, and us in every generation, that it is not enough to say, “We received the Torah from Moses,” or “from our parents.” We have to take the Torah and make it new in every generation. We have to write our own scroll, perhaps not with a quill, but with our lives. The point about the Torah is not that it is old, but that it is new; it is not just about the past, but about the future. It is not simply some ancient document that comes from an earlier era in the evolution of society. It speaks to us, here, now–but not without our making the effort to write it, to sing it, and to live it–again.
And how beautiful the idea, which Rambam confirms, that the Torah is a shirah, a song. Why call it that? Well, because if we are to hand on our faith and way of life to the next generation, it must sing. Torah must be affective, not just cognitive. It must speak to our emotions. If our Torah lacks passion, we will not succeed in passing it on to the future. Music is the affective dimension of communication, the medium through which we express, evoke, and share emotion. Precisely because we are creatures of emotion, music is an essential part of humanity’s vocabulary.
Music, as we learned from Hazzan Stein, has a close association with spirituality. And song is central to the Judaic experience. We do not pray; we daven, meaning we sing the words we direct toward heaven. Nor do we read the Torah. Instead we chant it, each word with its own cantillation. Even rabbinical texts are never merely studied; we chant them with a particular sing-song known to all students of Talmud. Music is the map of the Jewish spirit, and each spiritual experience has its own distinctive melodic landscape.
Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it modulates into shirah, into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of the finite meanings of words. Music speaks to something deeper than the mind. If we are to make Torah new in every generation we have to find ways of singing its song a new way.
Some years ago, a leaders of world Jewry wanted to find out what had happened to the “missing Jewish children” of Poland, those who, during the Shoah/Holocaust, had been adopted by Christian families and brought up as Catholics. He decided that the easiest way was through food. He organized a large banquet and placed advertisements in the Polish press, inviting whoever believed they had been born a Jew to come to this free dinner. Hundreds came, but the evening was on the brink of disaster since none of those present could remember anything of their earliest childhood–until one woman asked the person sitting next to her if he could remember the song his Jewish mother had sung to him before going to sleep. He began to sing:
In dem bays ha-mikdash, in a vinkl chey-der,
Zitst di almone, Bas Tsiyon aleyn…
It was the old lullaby, Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (‘Raisins and almonds’). Slowly others joined in, until the whole room was a chorus. Sometimes all that is left of Jewish identity is a song.
Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein in the introduction to a section of his classic code of Jewish law, the Aruch ha-Shulchan, writes that the Torah is compared to a shirah, a song, because, to those who appreciate music, the most beautiful choral sound is a complex harmony with many different voices singing different notes. So, he writes, it is with the Torah and its myriad commentaries. Judaism is a choral symphony scored for many voices: the written text its melody, the oral tradition its polyphony.
So I am very moved that we end our year of deep-dive into our spirituality–personal, communal, and as part of a global and historical people–that we end it as we began it, focused on shirah, song, because it is with a poetic sense of closure that Moses’ life ends with the command to begin again in every generation, to write our own song of Torah, with our own commentaries, the people of the book endlessly reinterpreting the book of the people, and singing its song. The Torah is G!d’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are G!d’s choir. We are the performers and players of G!d’s choral symphony. When Jews speak we often argue, but when we sing, we sing in harmony–at least mostly!–because: while words are the language of the mind, music is the language of the soul.
May this past year lead us to the next one–a year of spirituality, community, engagement with and for our people, and especially a year of shirah, singing our Torah, the music of our lives.
 Deuteronomy 32:19.
 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah, and Sefer Torah 7:1.
 This well known and beloved song was part of a song from the operetta Shulamis, written in 1880 by Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), considered the founder of the modern Yiddish theater. The refrain is an adaptation of the Yiddish folk song, “Unter Yankeles Vigele.”
 It’s in the introduction to the section “Choshen Mishpat.”