Thy Law Is The Truth

The Torah as God’s Song

A Torah scroll. Photograph:

On the finish of his life, having given the Israelites at God’s behest 612 commandments, Moses gave them the ultimate mitzvah: “Now due to this fact write down for yourselves this music and educate it to the individuals of Israel. Put it of their mouths, that this music could also be My witness towards the individuals of Israel” (Deut. 31:19).

In response to the plain sense of the verse, God was talking to Moses and Joshua, and was referring to the music within the following chapter, “Hear, O heavens, and I’ll converse; hear, O earth, the phrases of my mouth” (Deut. 32:1). Nonetheless, Oral Custom gave it a special and far wider interpretation, understanding it as a command for each Jew to jot down, or at the very least take some half in writing, a Sefer Torah:

Mentioned Rabbah: Although our ancestors have left us a scroll of the Torah, it’s our non secular responsibility to jot down one for ourselves, as it’s stated: “Now due to this fact write down for yourselves this music and educate it to the individuals of Israel. Put it of their mouths, that this music could also be My witness towards the individuals of Israel.” (Sanhedrin 21b)

The logic of the interpretation appears to be, first, that the phrase “write down for yourselves” might be construed as referring to each Israelite (Ibn Ezra), not simply Moses and Joshua. Second, the passage goes on to say (Deut. 31:24): “Moses completed writing within the e-book the phrases of this legislation from starting to finish.” The Talmud gives a 3rd motive. The verse goes on to say: “That this music could also be My witness towards the individuals” — implying the Torah as a complete, not simply the music in chapter 32 (Nedarim 38a).

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October eight, 2019 5:00 pm

Thus understood, Moses’ remaining message to the Israelites was: “It isn’t sufficient that you’ve got acquired the Torah from me. You should make it new once more in each technology.” The covenant was to not develop previous. It needed to be periodically renewed.

So it’s to today that Torah scrolls are nonetheless written as in historic occasions, by hand, on parchment, utilizing a quill — as have been the Lifeless Sea Scrolls two thousand years in the past. In a faith virtually devoid of sacred objects (icons, relics), the Torah scroll is the closest Judaism involves endowing a bodily entity with sanctity.

My earliest recollections are of going to my late grandfather’s little beit midrash in North London and being given the privilege, as a two or three-year-old youngster, of placing the bells on the Torah scroll after it had been lifted, rolled, and rebound in its velvet cowl. Even then, I had a way of the awe wherein the scroll was held by the worshipers in that little home of research and prayer.

A lot of them have been refugees. They spoke with heavy accents redolent of worlds that they had left, worlds that I later found had been destroyed within the Holocaust. There was an air of ineffable unhappiness in regards to the tunes they sang — all the time in a minor key. However their love for the parchment scroll was palpable. I later outlined it as their equal of the rabbinic custom in regards to the Ark within the wilderness: it carried those that carried it (Rashi to I Chr. 15:26). It was my first intimation that Judaism is the story of a love affair between a individuals and a e-book, the Guide of books.

What, although — if we take the command to discuss with the entire Torah and never only one chapter — is the importance of the phrase “music” (shira): “Now due to this fact write down for yourselves this music”? The phrase shira seems 5 occasions on this passage. It’s clearly a key phrase. Why? On this, two 19th-century students provided putting explanations.

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816–1893, one of many nice yeshiva heads of the 19th century) interprets it to imply that the entire Torah must be learn as poetry, not prose, for the reason that phrase shira in Hebrew means each a music and a poem. To make sure, a lot of the Torah is written in prose, however the Netziv argued that it has two traits of poetry. First, it’s allusive relatively than express. It leaves unsaid greater than is claimed. Second, like poetry, it hints at deeper reservoirs of that means, typically by means of an uncommon phrase or sentence development. Descriptive prose carries its that means on the floor. The Torah, like poetry, doesn’t.

On this good perception, the Netziv anticipates one of many nice 20th-century essays on Biblical prose — Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar.” Auerbach contrasts the narrative model of Genesis with that of Homer. Homer makes use of dazzlingly detailed descriptions so that every scene is about out pictorially as if bathed in daylight. In contrast, Biblical narrative is spare and understated. Within the instance Auerbach cites — the story of the binding of Isaac — we have no idea what the primary characters appear like, what they’re feeling, what they’re sporting, or what landscapes they’re passing by.

The decisive factors of the narrative alone are emphasised, what lies between is non-existent; time and place are undefined and name for interpretation; ideas and emotions stay unexpressed, solely advised by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the entire, permeated with probably the most unrelieved suspense and directed in the direction of a single objective, stays mysterious and “fraught with background.”

A very completely different side is alluded to by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, writer of the halachic code Aruch HaShulchan. Epstein factors out that the rabbinic literature is stuffed with arguments, about which the Sages stated: “These and people are the phrases of the residing God.” This, says Epstein, is likely one of the causes the Torah is named “a music” — as a result of a music turns into extra lovely when scored for a lot of voices interwoven in complicated harmonies.

I might recommend a 3rd dimension. The 613th command isn’t merely in regards to the Torah, however in regards to the responsibility to make the Torah new in every technology. To make the Torah reside anew, it isn’t sufficient handy it on cognitively — as mere historical past and legislation. It should converse to us affectively, emotionally.

Judaism is a faith of phrases, and but each time the language of Judaism aspires to the religious it breaks into music, as if the phrases themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. There’s something about melody that intimates a actuality past our grasp, what William Wordsworth known as the sense chic/Of one thing way more deeply interfused/Whose dwelling is the sunshine of setting suns/And the spherical ocean and the residing air. Phrases are the language of the thoughts. Music is the language of the soul.

The 613th command, to make the Torah new in each technology, symbolizes the truth that although the Torah was given as soon as, it have to be acquired many occasions, as every of us, by our research and apply, strives to recapture the pristine voice heard at Mount Sinai. That requires emotion, not simply mind. It means treating Torah not simply as phrases learn, but in addition as a melody sung. The Torah is God’s libretto, and we, the Jewish individuals, are His choir, the performers of His choral symphony. And although when Jews converse they typically argue, once they sing, they sing in concord, because the Israelites did on the Pink Sea, as a result of music is the language of the soul, and on the stage of the soul Jews enter the unity of the Divine which transcends the oppositions of decrease worlds.

The Torah is God’s music, and we collectively are its singers.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the previous chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. The writer of over 30 books, he could be adopted on social media @RabbiSacks or at

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