Song of Torah: Passing down teachings to the next generation

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion:Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1–52)

“My teaching shall drop as the rain…(Deuteronomy 32:2)”

Six times Moses has gained the attention of the Israelites with a stern and familiar phrase: “Shema, Yisrael,” or “Hear me Israel.” In this week’s Torah portion, so near to his end, and to the end of this year’s Torah cycle, he begins his final message with a different phrase, “Haazinu,” or “Give ear.” He tries to reach out to their hearts, using poetry rather than prose, and melody in the place of harsh commands: “let my teaching drop as gentle rain (Deuteronomy 32:2),” he says.  Rabbi Hertz writes: “the message conveyed by the song shall, like rain and dew falling on plants, penetrate to the hearts of the Israelites, and refresh, stimulate and give birth to a new spiritual life.”  

The Talmud tractate Taanit picks up on the metaphor: “a light rain is beneficial even to a seed that is beneath a clod of earth (gentle rains seep into cracks in the mud, causing buried seeds to begin to sprout and break through the clod of earth)…and Rava said that a young rabbinical student is like a seed beneath a clod of earth, once he sprouts, he sprouts.” So Moses wants his teachings of Torah to, like the rain, search for us and finding us, like seeds, hidden “beneath a clod of earth,” waiting to sprout. The “light rain” and “dew” are the lyrics Moses uses to represent the gentle way he chose to make his plea, in order to reach the hearts of every Israelite, past and present.

So it should be for all who hope to have their teachings have a chance to reach each and every student. Rabbi Twersky warns: “even the wisest teachings are of no value it they fall on unreceptive ears…rain that falls on the tilled field promotes growth, and brings forth the treasures contained within the earth. On the unprepared field, however, rain only turns the soil into mud.” Teachers of Torah, or any subject, must make sure that such “watering” reaches all potential students, as it is never clear which will sprout and which not.  

Moses then offers a suggestion: “Now therefore write this song for yourself, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me…(Deuteronomy 31:19).” From this Maimonides writes: “it is a positive commandment incumbent on each and every Jew to write a Torah scroll for himself.” The commentators alter its expectations some: “Certainly it is a great mitzvah to write a Torah scroll. This applies to earlier generations when they would write Torah scrolls from which to study. At present, when Torah scrolls are placed in synagogues for communal reading, the positive commandment incumbent on all is to write ….Mishnah and Gemara (Talmud) …for the purpose of writing is to study what is written, as it is written ‘and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths’.”  

And the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s thoughts have been summarized: “According to this conception, the writing of the scroll per se is not the intent of the mitzvah, but rather the medium through which the mitzvah is fulfilled. At the time the commandment was given (to write a Torah), the only way possible to fulfill the intent was by writing a scroll…..nevertheless, the mitzvah is not to write a Torah scroll, but to enable the Jewish people to study the Torah through written texts.”

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer considers: “losing G-d and finding Him again is part of what it means to be a Jew. Over and over, the Torah predicts that the people of Israel will lose it, will abandon G-d, and will forget who they are. The Torah tells Moses that what will bring the Jewish people back to G-d is a song, the song of the Torah: ‘therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel, put it in their mouths.’ Jewish memory means knowing the Torah as one knows a song that keeps popping into your consciousness, and suddenly you realize you are humming it. This kind of knowing is what creates the spiritual intimacy that is at the center of what it means to be a Jew: ‘for the commandment I enjoin upon you this day (says Moses) is not beyond your reach…it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart…’ This kind of intimate knowledge of the Torah is what returns us to ourselves, to G-d.”

Which melody will you find yourself singing and whose lyrics will stir your soul? Moses asks us to let it be Torah. “Turn it and turn it, for all is contained in it, constantly examine it, grow old and gray over it, over it” teaches Ben Bag-Bag. It is the document, this gift, that first taught the world, amongst many universal truths, to love your neighbor as yourself; to treat the stranger as yourself, to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger; to have one law for both the native and the stranger; to treat your neighbor as you would be treated; to not seek revenge and to aid even your enemy when he or his property are at risk; to give all equal access to the courts; to use just weights and measures and charge fair prices in business dealings; and to go beyond the letter of the law in order to do right and good in the eyes of your G-d.

Let the world see from you that you are defined by these principles. For as one of my teachers, James Alan McPherson, wrote: “be under no illusion. You shall gather to yourself the images you love…as men see the color in the wave, so shall men see in you the thing you have loved most…as year adds to year, that face of yours which once, like an unwritten page, lay smooth in your baby crib, will take to itself lines, and still more lines, as the parchment of an old historian who jealously sets down all the story. And there, more deep than acid etched the steel, will grow the inscribed narratives of your mental habits, the emotions of your heart, your sense of conscience, your response to duty, what you think of your G-d, what you think of your fellow man, what you think of yourself. It will all be there. For men become like that which they love, and the name thereof is written on their brow.”

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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