Shabbat Shalom: Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin   

Efrat, Israel“And Moses wrote this song on that day and taught it to the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31:32)

What is the song of the Torah? Moses himself refers to Torah as a “fiery law – esh dat” (Deut. 33:2), which the Midrash graphically describes as black fire atop white fire, the black letters on the white parchment. Both the letters as well as the parchment have laws governing their suitability, and both are therefore sacred. However, the Holy Zohar teaches that the sanctity of the white fire is greater than the sanctity of the black fire. What can this possibly mean? How can the white spaces contain greater holiness than the black letters?

A story of two Rebbes, the Voorker and the Trisker, will illuminate the teaching of the Holy Zohar. The Voorker and the Trisker (late nineteenth century, Poland) were fast friends from early childhood; they attended the same ĥeder, they shared the same bench where they studied together and slept side by side, and they shared each other’s very thoughts, dreams, and frustrations. When it came time for each of them to establish his own Court, they vowed to communicate by mail at least every Friday so that their relationship could continue. And so it was that every Friday morning the Voorker Rebbe would give a closed envelope to one of his disciples, who would return some five hours later with a closed envelope from the Trisker. 

This went on for nine years. The disciple became smitten with curiosity. What does one Hasidic giant write to another? He knew there was a serious prohibition established by Rabbenu Gershom many generations before, forbidding the reading of another’s mail; “but, ”rationalized the disciple, “it is Torah, and it is necessary for me to learn it.” And so, with trembling fingers, he carefully removed the Voorker’s letter from the envelope. To his great dismay, he saw a respectful salutation, an empty page, and a signature. He restored and delivered the letter, received the response, and once again – when he was in safe distance from prying eyes – he removed the Trisker’s letter. He experienced the same dismay: a respectful salutation, an empty page, and a signature. What could this mean? Did the holy saints know what he planned to do in advance? But he, himself hadn’t decided until the last moment of weakness!

The disciple returned the letters to his Rebbe and spent a guilt-ridden, agonizing Sabbath. 

As soon as Sabbath was out he entered the Rebbe’s private chamber, confessed his crime, and begged both forgiveness and an explanation. The Rebbe took his disciple’s hands in his own. He explained: The Trisker and I love each other. Our relationship is so deep that we only have to look at each other and we know what our friend is feeling. What we must communicate each week is our emotions – and emotions are too profound to be limited by words. That is the meaning of the empty page. If we must discuss a halakhic issue or share a personal problem, we ask for a meeting date and see each other during the week.

The Torah contains black letters and white spaces. The black letters are the words of Torah. The white spaces are the song of Torah. 

The black letters are the do’s and don’ts, the white spaces are the angst and desire. The black letters are the concepts, the ideas, the laws; the white spaces are the love, the joy, and the dream. The black letters are the mind of Torah, the white spaces are the soul of Torah. And the song is the soul…


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