Rabbi Stephen Kahn

“And 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.” (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Imagine Moses, standing east of the Jordan River, on Mt. Nebo 3,200 years ago. As his life is about to come to an end, he shares this final instruction to the People of Israel as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Perhaps this can be described as a liminal space between — a past, present and future moment of the eternal story of the Jewish People — what has transpired up until this moment while mindful of the transition from life to death he is facing.

Moses’ instruction to “write for yourselves this song” and then to “teach it” not only preserves the eternal covenant at Sinai but also insures that collective soul of the People of Israel will be inseparably bound with the “song,” composed by the God of Israel.

The rabbis teach that this was the 613th Mitzvah — the final Mitzvah — given to our ancestors. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l posits that the words, “And now write for yourselves,” applies to the Torah as a whole. Thus, the last of all the 613 commands is to write — or at least take part in writing, if only a single letter — a Torah scroll.

Maimonides’ takes this idea one step further:

“Every Israelite is commanded to write a Torah scroll for him[her]self, as it says, “Now therefore write this song,” meaning, “Write for yourselves [a complete copy of] the Torah that contains this song,” since we do not write isolated passages of the Torah [but only a complete scroll]. Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll from his [her]parents, nonetheless it is a mitzvah to write one for oneself, and one who does so is as if he had received [the Torah] from Mount Sinai. One who does not know how to write a scroll may engage [a scribe] to do it for him, and whoever corrects even one letter is as if he has written a whole scroll.” (Mishneh Torah)

Whether we interpret Maimonides’ explanation literally, figuratively, the idea that each and every one of us must write a Torah for ourselves is a fundamental principle of Judaism. The idea in this week’s portion Vayelech, that this should be in the form of a song, teaches us that Torah should not only be viewed for its prose but for its poetry as well. That is, every Jew must find for themselves the song of their individual hearts and minds in order to bequeath its ultimate essence to the next generation.

As we enter the Jewish New Year and approach the end of our Torah cycle, I pray we will see ourselves as lyricists, composers of a Torah of meaning and purpose, compassion and hope, aspiration and peace. May we write a Torah of joy and courage which informs the coming moment and inspires our children and grandchildren to do the same, yet with their own sense of their unique place within its eternality.

May each one of us stand before God, ready to say, “I choose to do justly,” “to love mercy,” “to walk with a pure heart,” and most of all to acknowledge, within the song of our heart that we are of the People of Israel in our strivings and our suffering toward repairing our world for the sake of all humanity. JN

Rabbi Stephen Kahn is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.