From today’s double portion of Torah readings, I want to focus on just two statements, one from Nitzavim and the other from Va-yeilekh.
We’ll start by looking at a very short phrase from Deuteronomy 31:19. The Etz Hayim humash (book of Torah and commentary)—on page 1177—translates it as “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel….” In the Hertz humash—page 888 of my 1956 edition—the translation reads “Now therefore write thee this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel….”
In notes from a Torah class I took some years ago, I’ve jotted in the margin of my Etz Hayim that it is better translated as “You will write for yourself this poem,” which is closer to the Hertz. And Rabbi David Finkelstein of Temple Beth Israel (Waltham, MA) further clarified for me both the imperative and the plural in the Hebrew, yielding: “Write for yourselves this poem.”
As we hone in on the language, we can begin to understand. But first, what is this poem?
Though a poem does follow, when we get to Parashat (Torah portion) Ha-azinu, that merely is a snapshot—a representation—of the entire poem that is the Sefer Torah. The poem that we are commanded to write for ourselves is the Torah in its entirety.
Now let’s go back a little in the text, to Deuteronomy 30: 11-14. In Etz Hayim, at the bottom of page 1170, it translates to: “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
What is “this Instruction?” The Hebrew is “ha-mitvah hazot,” translated in Hertz as “this Commandment,” and the 13th century rabbi and Biblical commentator Nachmanides says that it refers to the specific commandment of teshuvah, or return to God, that is referenced in the prior sentence. However the medieval rabbi and commentator Rashi, as well as the prevailing wisdom of the Talmudic Sages, teach us that it refers to the whole of the Torah.
The Torah is a complex text, filled with human stories from which we discern how to act…and how not to act, the establishment of a judicial system, the imparting of laws, the recounting of lineages, humor, tragedy…we can go on and on. We read it throughout the year, every year, we discuss and debate it, we build midrash (interpretation) on it, because we never can conclude our learning of and from it.
Yet this is the text, the Instruction, the great Poem that we should not find baffling. As elusive as the meaning may sometimes seem, in fact it is within our reach. It is so accessible that we can—and must—write this Poem for ourselves. How is this possible?
I suggest that it is so accessible because its very complexity offers us so many routes into Torah. I mentioned earlier, when looking at the phrase “Write for yourselves this poem,” that the precise language offers insight.
The word “poem” suggests that we are speaking of Torah as a form that embodies imagination, powerful imagery and emotion, allowing for individualized experiences in accessing this force of literature. And we have the requirement of us in the plural: “yourselves.”
Each of us experiences Torah in our own way. The poetry reaches us each differently. Because of this individual experience, we find Torah within our reach. And because we find it in within our reach, we can author our own poetry of Torah—in the way we live our personal Torah. When each of us does this, then collectively we “write for [our]selves this poem.”
For this to work—for our collective living of Torah to form the poem—we must give each other ample opportunity to carry out our individual expressions of it. We must accept, embrace and enable these differences of Torah expression.
I expect that, for most of us, how we most fundamentally live Torah is influenced of our formative experiences. I’ll use myself as an example. The Torah of justice is my legacy. It is described simply and concisely in Day 59 of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s daily guide, “The Book of Jewish Values,” where he writes that the character of Moses in the Torah teaches: “First, you should stand up when you see an injustice being committed. Second, you should involve yourself in fighting injustice, whether it is a fellow Jew who is being hurt…or whether it is non-Jews who are being oppressed.” It’s easy to see from my history why this is my Torah. When my mother died in 1973, my father wrote of her: “Zelda believed in loving, in joy and in freedom. …[S]he grieved that those basic conditions of a good life were not available to all human beings, and she worked hard that they should be. …[S]he was religious in her dedication to the Jewish values of equality and social justice.” I watched her live out this Torah, for example, in her work for prisoners’ rights. And well before my memory, she researched and wrote a book for the Legal Division of The National Mental Health Foundation with the purpose of protecting the civil liberties and rights of people with mental illness.
Eleven years later, upon the death of my Grandma Sadie—Zelda’s mother—my father again described this legacy, writing of Sadie: “Her deep-felt, well articulated concerns for social justice, for the poor, for blacks, for those who couldn’t make it on their own, never flagged. …She was one with Jewish values and with the Jewish people….”
Then there is Toni, who stepped into the role of mother to me when I was 15. The year she retired from legal practice at Foley Hoag, the firm dedicated the annual report of its Foundation to her because, as it stated, “With a clear vision of the law as central to the social, economic and political structure in which we live and work, Toni took on some of the most pressing issues facing our society, particularly those involving minorities, women or the economically disadvantaged.” The connection between her Jewish identify and her pursuit of justice always has been clear to me, and it is no surprise that one of the organizations for which she volunteered in leadership was the Jewish Women’s Archive.
And finally, my father. President of the Philadelphia Chapter and member of the National Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union. Vice Chair of the International Legal Education Section of the World Peace Through Law Center. One of thirteen Harvard Law faculty—in 1965 when he was a visiting professor before coming permanently eleven years later—signing a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson protesting police action against the demonstrators in Selma, Alabama and urging federal intervention. As we can tell from how he wrote of his wife and mother-in-law, his own actions were rooted in his Torah, learned from his childhood—for example seeing first-hand the profoundly and sometimes tragic inequitable impact among his sphere of friends of the poverty of the Great Depression, and having a father—my Grandpa Nat—deeply committed to his career in public service as the Chief Clerk of Philadelphia’s City Council.
The point is simply this: my Torah is the Torah of justice. It is my heritage; it is my legacy. It is the way in which the fundamental poetry of Judaism sings for me.
For others, the poetry sits elsewhere. It is easy for me to connect and collaborate with others for whom justice work is central, but to ensure we write for ourselves this poem, our work also—as I noted earlier—is to accept, embrace and enable those for whom the poetry of Torah reads differently. What might this look like? For me, it’s being present for prayer. I wasn’t raised to be a regular at services, and though there are elements that I enjoy it is not the setting in which I feel readily inspired or spiritually connected. But for others, prayer is their Torah. So to support them in writing their portion of the poem, I show up to be counted in minyan. I run the technology on many Shabbat mornings at my synagogue. I ensure that within the synagogue—virtual as it is now, or physical—there is a space for their Torah.
My hope is that each of us can have such a space within our synagogue. A space for the Torah of prayer. A space for the Torah of learning. A space for the Torah of supporting mourners, of visiting the sick. A space for the Torah of hearing the Shofar blast. A space for the Torah of nature’s bounty. A space for the Torah of resistance.* A space for so much Torah—including the Torah of justice. In this way, collectively, we “write for [o]urselves this poem,” and perhaps in that writing we share and learn from the personal stories that make our Torah so poignant and urgent for us.
This also is how Torah becomes accessible—not baffling, in the heavens, or beyond the sea, but “close to [us], in [our] heart.” It’s within reach because each of us grabs the piece that sings for us as poetry, each of us brings that stanza of Torah to life within our community, each of us enters the covenant, each of us welcomes and encourages and aids the other in our expression of Torah whether it is familiar or uncomfortable to us, and together we make Torah whole and tangible.
*Thank you to Penina Weinberg for her inspiration to add “the Torah of resistance” to this paragraph.