People of the book: How we can make the Torah our very own

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1–30)

Toward the end of this Shabbat’s Torah reading Moses is told by G-d that his days are numbered.  He must prepare himself and the people for his demise and for the new leadership role that his disciple Joshua would take.  

In the next Torah portion Ha’Azinu, Moses’ great song is recorded.  In magnificent poetic form he informs the Children or Israel of their responsibilities to the covenant and what might occur should they disobey G-d’s message.  As he prepares for this great event he is told by G-d: “Therefore, write down this poem and 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.”  

The poem or the song is clearly the next Torah portion Ha’Azinu, but as usual Rabbinic understanding extended this statement into a commandment, in fact, the last commandment of the Torah.  According to Rabbinic sources the 613th commandment in the Torah requires every Jew to write a Torah scroll for oneself. The commandment was understood as saying: “Write for yourselves the Torah in which there is this poem.”  

The writing of a Sefer Torah is intricate, elaborate and takes great skill.  Not only must one be religiously observant, knowledgeable of the appropriate laws, but also one must have scribal skills which allow one to write a perfect text.  Even if one letter is written in error the Torah scroll is Pasul, not usable. Thus, the Scribe must take every precaution to make sure that the scroll is perfect.

If you have seen a Scribe at work you know that the parchment must be of fine quality and from a kosher animal. There is special ink which is used and the Scribe writes with a quill. As each section is written and checked, it is sewn together with sinews to other sections of the scroll until eventually the entire scroll is completed.  Not only is this an arduous and complex task, but the Torah must be periodically checked lest errors be seen or the ink become too dry and fall off.

Maimonides wrote that knowing the great difficulty of writing one’s own scroll, if it is impossible for him to write one himself, one must either purchase one or hire a Scribe to write it for him.  That still makes it extremely difficult for most of us. Therefore, it became the custom that the commandment can be fulfilled by writing a single letter of a complete scroll. Because the lack of even one letter renders a scroll invalid, the writing  of a single letter is tantamount to completing the entire scroll. Many congregations allow their members to participate in this Mitzvah by commissioning a Sofer to write a Torah scroll and inviting them to participate either by purchasing at least a letter, or better yet, working with the Sofer to write one.

The author of the Sefer HaChinuch offers another interpretation of one’s ability to fulfill this commandment:  “Know further, my son, that even though the principal essential obligation by the law of Torah applies to nothing but a Torah scroll, there is no doubt that other volumes as well were composed in explanation of the Torah, and that everyone should acquire them according to his ability.”  The author suggests that even if one can’t participate in the writing of the Torah scroll one should possess a library in which holy books, Sifrei Kodesh, are present. This opinion offers us an opportunity to fulfill our obligation of the 613th commandment in a rather simple fashion. Acquire a library of Judaic knowledge, study the books and treasure them.

Rabbi Judah Ibn Tibbon who lived in the 12th Century was a great translator of books of medieval Jewish philosophy.  For him scholarly endeavor was of the utmost importance and in writing his ethical will to his son he wished to impart the values that motivated his life.  “My son,” he wrote, “make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves show your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh.”

Today it is possible to gain knowledge through the internet, through computer programs, and through distance learning.  And yet I find no substitute for holding a book in your hands and caressing it as you read its pages and gain from its knowledge.  It is just not the same as watching a computer screen or calling the material up on a search engine. Yes, we have advanced in our technology but I think we sometimes lose in the process.  It is interesting to note that even with all this new technology more books are being published than ever before. I find more people reading those books and gaining from their words.

A few weeks ago we read as part of our Torah reading the Law of the King.  The King of Israel was subject to the Law of Israel and had to acknowledge his position in the society in which he lived:  “When he is seated on his royal throne he shall have a copy of this teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read in it all of his life.”

There are no longer kings on the throne of Israel.  However, the Talmud in the Tractate of Bava Metzia states:  “All of Israel are the children of Kings.” All of us can be considered royalty and, therefore, we should keep the Torah with us each and every day as we proceed through our lives.  Since most of us are unable to write a Torah scroll for ourselves, and it may even be difficult to acquire one for our own possession, we can follow the opinion of the Sefer HaChinuch who informs us that possessing religious books and using them enables us to fulfill this mitzvah.  May the words of Torah be with us at all times.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).

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