Imagine that you are asked to find one word to describe the entire Torah, Judaism’s holiest text. The likely response would be something in the realm of the following: holy, sacred, spiritual, meaningful. However, the Torah itself gives a very interesting answer to this very question. The verse at the end of last week’s portion states, “So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel…”(Devarim 31:1). The Torah, a song. Why would the Torah consider itself to be a song? And more importantly, what valuable message can we learn from this description?
Songs are created from individual words, strung together and set to tune. The written word has always played an integral part in Jewish tradition. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik writes, “The word plays a unique role in the world-outlook of the Torah. Through the word, the boundless cosmos was created. Through the word, God revealed Himself to man in His role as a spiritual being and charged him with a singular task and assignment. God spoke to Avraham and then to Moshe, and urged them to establish a covenantal community, and later addressed himself to that community and exhorted it to achieve the exalted heights of a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.”(Torah and Humility). It is also important to note that words can take on very different meanings depending on how they are used. For example, prose, poetry and lyrics all utilize words but each style does so in their own unique way.
According to Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the above verse in Devarim which likens the Torah to a song is in fact teaching us the path through which a person should relate to the words of the Torah. He writes that though the majority of the Torah is written as prose, there is still a significant amount which is written and should be read as poetry. In many cases, the words of the Torah are in fact allegorical rather than explicit. And, similar to the very best poetry, the words of the Torah hint at deeper levels of meaning as hinted by the use of an unusual word or sentence construction.(Kidmat Davar, preface to Ha’amek Davar, 3). The very structure of the written Torah is one which is designed to encourage us to probe ever deeper in order to fully understand its message.
According to Jewish tradition, in addition to the Written Torah given to Moses at Sinai, an accompanying Oral Torah was also handed down. This oral law was transmitted from teacher to student for generations until finally being written down and codified in 480 C.E. Jewish tradition throughout generations has followed both the written and oral law to serve as a guide for Jewish life and community. This duality of a written and oral blueprint also finds its own similar expression in the music world. Sheet music is in fact musical notes written down on paper, which allows the musician to visually see which notes he will be playing. Sheet music can be appreciated on a cognitive and even intellectual level; however, once the musician picks up his instrument and begins to play, the music which you thought you knew on paper takes on an entirely new and elevated form. The sheet music, through the medium of the music itself, is transformed from a purely cognitive exercise and enters the realm of active experiential experience. The same idea is true of the Torah; when a person approaches both the Written and the Oral Torah. The words themselves are like music notes, extremely important and without which we would be lost without our guide. But just like in the static sheet of music, they do not fully encapsulate the totality of the Torah experience. They must be put into practice and brought into the world of action in order to truly and fully appreciate their significance.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted author and Jewish thinker of the 20th Century, so eloquently explains the importance of experiencing, and not just philosophizing, Judaism. He writes,
“I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.”(Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pg 133).
In a similar vein, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, writes, “The fundamental idea of Judaism was and is that we bring God into the world through daily acts and interactions…No unified field theory will ever finally settle the question of whether or not the universe was created by a personal God…It is truth made real by how I live.” (Radical Then, Radical Now, pg 160-165). Though the text of the Torah itself is undeniably important, we must always remember that only when we lift the words from their pages and put their song into our daily life will we truly and fully experience the nuances and beauty of the words of the Torah.