The mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah

Netzavim/vayelech

22 Elul 5780 September 11, 2020

In Parashat Vayelech, God tells Moshe that once he dies, the people will be seduced by idolatry and abandon the terms of the holy covenant. In that context, Moshe commands each Jew to write a Sefer Torah:

The LORD said to Moshe: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. Therefore, you should all write this poem and [you, Moshe] should teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel. (Devarim 31:16-19)

The Sefer Hachinuch quotes the beautiful explanation in the Talmud, Bavli, that the experience of writing a sefer Torah transforms and transports the person back to Mt. Sinai: If a person wrote it with his [own] hand, this is praiseworthy and very dear; and as they, may their memory be blessed, said (Menachot 30a), “If he wrote it” – meaning to say, with his hand – “Scripture attributes [it] to him as if he received it from Mount Sinai.” 

Contemporary research in education has well-established the power of multi-sensory learning. The more senses a person brings to a phenomenon, the deeper their chances for remembering what they are learning and understanding it. The least effective way to learn something is to simply be told, while the learner sits as a passive recipient. However, if a person hears something, especially accompanied by song or music or rhythm, and says it, or chants it or sings it, and touches it, and dances or sways to it in movement, and writes it, then those multi-sensory memory-muscles flex themselves around all the ways one can know that teaching. If an experience is at once audial and kinesthetic and tactile and visual, and one returns to that experience daily, the words become sacramental, transforming the individual into a living Torah.

Much of Netzavim and Vayelech describes God’s knowledge that the Jewish people will turn to idolatry after Moshe’s life. An open society, surrounded by the allure of materialism and the freedoms to act on how the world appears on the surface will quickly erode the memories and feelings of living as emissaries of the Creator. Moshe warned of this already in the second section of the Shema: the people will follow their immediate desires, the allures of their hearts and eyes, and abandon the teaching of “walking in God’s pathways.” The entire pathway through the desert was designed to awaken our consciousness that everything we do reflects God’s will, that there is no reality outside of the Creature. We can act in ways that bring more truth, righteousness, justice, kindness, and love into the world, or transform the world into a godless wilderness through oppression, cruelty, avarice, and falsehood by worshipping our own desires and ego. Either way, we exist within the reality of God’s being. God’s face is either facing us, or God has turned God’s back on us, but we remain in God’s presence either way, because there is no reality outside of God. Moshe understands this, and therefore the final mitzvah of the Torah, #613, is for each of us to transport ourselves back to Mt. Sinai and transform ourselves into a living Torah by writing this “poem,” this multi-sensory text.

The interiorization of Torah through the act of writing not only reflects a contemporary pedagogic theory. Mystical, hasidic teaching also emphasizes that the truth of Torah is not outside of ourselves, but resides within us and pulsates with the energy that nourishes our souls. The world, in this tradition of hasidic thinking, lives in a state of alienation. Exile is both physical, but also more profoundly, spiritual. We no longer grasp, value, respect, fear, and cherish the inner life-force that pulsates throughout all of creation. We think that truth is literal and that reality is primarily physical, whereas any scientist will readily acknowledge the magnificent mystery that lies at the heart of the physical structure of the world. Simply put, the ecological balances of the world defy comprehension and should evoke kavod and awe. The Gerer Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, describes the mitzvah to write a sefer Torah in just these terms:

The Torah says, Write a sefer Torah for yourselves….Prior to the sin of the first humans, God’s holy presence, the shekhinah, resided overtly, revealed, within every person. However now, in the condition of exile, the people denied God’s presence in the world [which is impossible], so God described God’s presence as a “hidden face.” God’s presence, from that moment on, was transformed, From that moment God “existed” through the medium of the words of the Torah, inside of each person. God then commanded Moshe Rabbenu of Blessed memory, to hide life-energy (“light”) inside the letters of the Torah. In that way, the words bear witness to God’s animating presence within each person. Once a person becomes aware of this inner presence, their consciousness moves them to repent and turn back to God…..(Sefat Emet, parashat vayelech, 1885)

In contemporary terms, the Sefat Emet is writing about alienation from the divine sources of life and from a lack of consciousness of how we are all connected to every aspect of the created world and all of its material. He is writing about how that alienation comes from the primal sin of refusing to recognize that we, too, are creatures of a Creator. Moshe has explained the implications of that sin through Sefer Devarim. Once we turn our backs on God, humanity starts to worship their own ego. Once that idolatrous practice emerges, the world becomes overtaken by chaos, cruelty, oppression, greed, injustices, racism, violence, and destruction. The Sefat Emet is saying, in mystical terminology, my writing a Torah, we can re-infuse ourselves with an awareness of God’s loving presence, and then pay attention to the words that can bind us to life: just as God visits the sick, so too should we. Just as God comforts the mourner with empathy, so too, should we be compassionate. Just as God feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, so too, should we. Just as God has warned us against oppressing immigrants, so too, should we seek justice and truth for all those who are minorities in society. Ever the educator, Moshe Rabbenu’s final effort to leave us a legacy, and to bear witness, to God’s hopes and expectations for humanity. “If you will not listen, and you will not learn from history, and you will think only of yourselves, and you will feel no obligation to care for the world and the life I gave you–at least write these words with your own hand. As you write each letter, whisper it to yourself. Perhaps if you put your hand, and your eye, and your mouth, and your ear to the words, they will reach your heart.”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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