It is the last few days of Moshe’s life. His final speech to Bnei Yisrael before his death is drawing to a close. The people have been standing and listening to his final words of advice, rebuke and encouragement for almost a month. This stage of Jewish history is about to end. And at this moment, Hashem gives us the last mitzvah in the Torah: “now write for yourself this poem and teach it to Bnei Yisrael, put it in their mouths” (Devarim, 31:19).
According to the Sefer HaChinuch, the word “poem” in this pasuk refers to the entire Torah and the mitzvah is for each and every person to write a Torah scroll for himself (Sefer HaChinuch, 613). The Rambam similarly uses this pasuk as the source of the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah (Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvot Aseh 18). The Rambam, quoting the Gemarah (Sanhedrin 21a), adds that even if one’s parents have left them a Sefer Torah, each person has a mitzvah to write one for himself. This implies that the mitzvah is not only to have a Sefer Torah and have access to Torah, but to actually go through the process of writing a Sefer Torah too. Why is this so important? And why is the Torah, in the context of this mitzvah, referred to as a “poem”?
The Netziv, in the introduction to his commentary on Torah, explains that the reason the Torah is referred to as a poem is because the language of the Torah is deep and rich, full of allusion and metaphor and hidden meaning; “the ideas are not fully explained, like they are in prose. One has to make notes in the margin”, one has to sit with the text and think about it deeply to draw out the kaleidoscope range of meanings hidden beneath the words (HaEmek Davar, Kidmat HaEmek, 3). Torah, like poetry (or because it is poetry), can be difficult. It’s meaning can often be elusive, it’s messages hidden under the surface.
But we are given a mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah. Even if our parent’s left us one. Even if our parents taught us, we each have the responsibility to go through the process of writing a Torah for ourselves, of acquiring Torah for ourselves. We are obligated to put in the effort, to do the work, and yes, sometimes also to struggle. Torah is not an inheritance (Avot, 2:12), it is not guaranteed to us just because our parents and grandparents had it (Bartenurah, Avot, 2:12). If we want it, we have to work for it. And it is worth it because “you have no better portion than it” (Avot, 5:22).
And Moshe gives us some reassurance in this week’s parsha: Torah “is not far away. It is not in heaven for someone to say ‘who from us can go up to heaven and take it for us so that we can listen to it and observe it?’ It is not across the seas for someone to say ‘who from us can cross the sea and take it for us so that we can listen to it and observe it?’ It is near to you” (Devarim, 30:11-14). Torah might be difficult. But it is not impossible. It is not too far away for anyone to reach it, if they so choose. Learning and struggling and putting in time and effort is a choice – but in this parsha, G-d exhorts us to “choose life” (Devarim 30:19) – so that “you will live, you and your children” (Devarim 30:19), both in this world and the world to come.
Torah, like poetry (and because it is poetry), can be difficult. But Torah, like poetry (and because it is poetry), is worth it. The word of G-d glimmers in front of you, buried under the surface. If you stretch out your hand, you will be able to reach it. Because Torah is not in heaven. It is here. Within your reach. If you decide to take it.