“Write down this song for yourselves”

When people write Torah scrolls by themselves, they undergo a process of self-clarification and “sculpting” which forge their identities, just like when Moshe Rabbeinu sculpted the tablets. This is a subjective process that is uniquely theirs.

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev is Rosh Midrasha of Israeli Programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum

This week’s Torah portion is one of the last in the Torah. A very interesting commandment appears: “Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). The Talmudic sages teach us, in Tractate Sanhedrin 21b: “[With regard to the mitzva for every Jew to write himself a Torah scroll], even if a person’s ancestors left him a Torah scroll, it is a mitzva to write a scroll of one’s own, as it is stated: “Now, therefore, write for yourselves this song…” They  teach us that even if a person makes a concerted effort to write a scroll by himself, and not through an emissary, “the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it at Mount Sinai…” (Tractate Minhot 30a), or, to put it in the words of Maimonides in Sefer Hamitzvot (Positive Commandment 18): “[the person] is very praiseworthy”.

The Rishonim write (the Rosh, in chapter one of his book, Laws of Torah Scrolls) that this was the accepted practice in the earlier generations, “but nowadays, when we write Torah scrolls and place them in synagogues so that they can be read in public, a positive commandment applies to every man among the people of Israel, who can afford to do, to purchase the Five Books of Moses and the commentaries, because the commandment of writing a Torah scroll aims to have the Torah studied.”

These sources, which discuss the writing of Torah scrolls, raise several questions:

Why is it so important for a person to write his own Torah scroll by himself, instead of just receiving one from his parents, or buying one for someone else? Why did our sages consider the act of writing so important, to the extent that one who writes a Torah scroll is as if he had experienced the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai?

Why does the Torah call the Torah scroll that is to be written a “song”?

It seems that the act of writing has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, when a person writes, he or she remembers the subject matter better, “as memory becomes wisdom”. Plato’s writings in his book, Phaedrus, which discusses the creation of writing, include the following text:

At that time, Thamus was the King of all of Egypt… To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them …but when they came to letters, “O King, this,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: ”O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Plato argues that man believes that writing will help him remember what he had written better, but in practice, the man will forget it quicker, because he puts his wisdom to writing, instead of inscribing that wisdom deep within his heart. “The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence”. According to Plato, people err when they think that by writing, they are passing on their wisdom to their disciples. Plato explains that this is pseudo-wisdom, since without oral study and instruction, “they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”

Moreover, Plato finds one more disadvantage to writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

According to Plato, a text can always end up in the wrong hands, and be interpreted in a way that is diametrically opposed to what the author had intended. Writing is an inanimate being, and will always remain set and “frozen.”

If writing has so many serious disadvantages, why would the Torah tell us that it is so important to write Torah scrolls by ourselves? After all, ultimately, what’s most important is that we become familiar with the Torah and know how to study it, right?

When a person writes something, the person goes through a process of self-clarification. Every Torah scribe can tell you that the writing process involves self-clarification and eliminating the other options that had come up.

When speaking to Moshe Rabbeinu, Hashem says: “Carve for yourself two tablets of stone like the first…” (Exodus 34:1). From the words “carve for yourself”, our sages infer that “the waste shall be for you”, and used this to deduce that Moshe became wealthy from the waste remaining from hewing the Tablets of the Covenant (Tractate Nedarim, 38a). In his commentary to this Midrash, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav stated that Moshe grew spiritually wealthy from the hewing of the tablets. Hewing in stone is an expression of the process of clarifying and ruling out earlier thoughts and ideas, that are not to be put into writing, and it is through the very act of ruling out that a person becomes spiritually wealthy, according to Likutei Moharan, chapter 141, paragraph 60.

Even people write Torah scrolls by themselves, they undergo a process of self-clarification and ruling out, which forge their identities, just like when Moshe sculpted the Tablets of the Law. This is a subjective process that is uniquely theirs. Thus, the Torah calls Torah scrolls “songs.” When a person writes poetry, the person is essentially writing himself or herself (just as Hashem writes Himself: “[the word anochi] is an acronym for I Myself Wrote and Gave.” When writing a song, we must go through a process of precise clarification and refinement.

It is therefore clear why, when a person writes a Torah scroll, it is as if he “was standing and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai”, because during the writing process, he is experience his own private Giving of the Torah, through a Torah-giving process that involves clarification.

In the modern day, “the age of the computer screens”, when the quality and quantity of written material is in constant decline, not to mention the quality of writing, the process of writing, and writing personal Torah scrolls in particular, has considerable intrinsic value, as acts that shape the identity of a person who writes and believes.


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