Devarim, 31:19: “And now write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouth, so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.”
God instructs each person to write their own Torah scroll (Sefer Torah) but when He describes the Torah, He calls it a Shirah (song). Why is the Torah called a song? Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog1 gives a novel explanation: In virtually all fields of study, a person who is uninitiated in that discipline does not derive any pleasure from hearing a theory or an insight concerning that field of study. For example, a physicist will derive great pleasure from hearing a novel interpretation or insight in the field of physics, since it is his field of expertise. However, someone who has no significant knowledge of physics will be totally unmoved by the very same insight. This concept applies to many other fields.
However, an exception to this concept is found in music for music can be appreciated on many levels. As Rabbi Yissachar Frand explains: “When Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is played – regardless of whether one is a concertmaster or a plain simple person – there is something one can get out of it. Music is something that everyone on his or her own level can enjoy. Everyone can relate to music.”
Rabbi Herzog says that this is why the Torah is called “Shirah”: Everyone on his level can appreciate the Torah. On the one hand, a great Torah Scholar can learn the opening verse in the Torah, “Bereishit Barah Elokim (In the beginning God created) …” and see great wisdom therein. Indeed, one of the greatest scholars of all time, the Vilna Gaon only learnt Chumash at the end of his life, because he could use his vast knowledge of the Oral Torah and Mysticism and see it all in the exalted words of the Torah. Yet, on the other hand, one can be a five-year-old child, just beginning to read, and learn the very same words, “Bereishit Barah Elokim…” and also gain something from it. Every person, on his own level can have an appreciation for Torah. Therefore, the verse aptly refers to Torah when it says “And now, write for yourselves this ‘song’…”
However, it seems an additional point needs to be made with regard to the idea that any person on any level can relate to the Torah. Returning to the analogy of music, even though it is true that a simple person can enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, it is also true that a concertmaster will appreciate it on a far higher and more sophisticated level, noting the numerous details that make it such an admired piece of music.
The same applies to the Torah: A child can enjoy learning “Bereishit Barah Elokim” but a more mature person can appreciate it far more, and a Torah scholar can appreciate it on a whole different level. As a person grows up, he is responsible to develop his understanding of the Torah as his comprehension and knowledge increase. This idea should apply to all facets of Torah, such as Gemara, Chumash, Jewish thought and so on. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that a person who grows exponentially in his approach to Gemara learning, does not make anything like the same progress in the realm of Chumash and Jewish thought. A person can be learning Gemara in depth with all the complex commentators, yet he does not advance at all from the understanding of Chumash that he developed as a young child in school2.
One may ask what is so bad about a mature adult having an immature approach to Chumash? On a most basic level, our obligation to know Torah applies to all facets of Torah, and the Chumash itself is the ultimate source of God’s wisdom. Therefore, in order to fulfil one’s obligation to know Torah, he must develop as deep an understanding of the Chumash as possible. On a more practical level, the Torah itself is the source of the correct approach to every aspect of life. Learning works about Jewish thought and growth is tremendous, but they all derive back from the Written Torah with Its explanations in the Oral Torah. The deeper an understanding one has of Torah the more it will dominate his outlook and infiltrate into every aspect of his life. The following story provides one small example of how Gedolim learnt vital life lessons that they derived from contemplation of the Torah.
After Abraham fails to persuade God to not wipe out Sodom, the Torah makes a seemingly superfluous comment. “HaShem departed when He had finished speaking to Abraham, and Avraham returned to his place.”3 What is the significance of the fact that Abraham returned to his place?
The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky addressed this question in making a vital point to Rabbi Elazar Shach. On one occasion the Mo’etzes Gedolei HaTorah4 made a certain decision in opposition to the views of Rabbi Shach and the Steipler. The matter was of such importance to Rabbi Shach that he felt a great sense of despair and his spirits were broken. Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz writes that soon after this incident he visited the Steipler who asked him how Rabbi Shach was faring. He answered that Rabbi Shach was thoroughly dejected and did not know which way to turn. So great was his disappointment that he said he had no more strength to continue.
The Steipler listened to this sadly and said, “I would like you to go to Rabbi Shach for me and tell him the following.” The Steipler proceeded to ask the aforementioned question as to the significance of the fact that “Abraham returned to his place.” He answered with the following words. “What this means is that the Torah wants to teach us – tell Rabbi Shach this – that when one has done everything in order to save a situation and the goal has not been achieved one must implement, ‘And Abraham returned to his place’. One has to go back and resume the activity that one is obligated to engage in, continuing as though nothing untoward has happened. Under no circumstances whatsoever does lack of success justify a person giving way and being unable to carry on his holy work. Repeat this, word for word, on my behalf. He has done everything without missing a single detail, therefore he must also fulfill, ‘And Avraham returned to his place,’ and continue leading the Jewish people as before.”
Rabbi Lorincz reports that when he conveyed this message to Rabbi Shach, Rabbi Shach replied that he accepted this lesson and would return to his work on behalf of the Jewish people.5
The Steipler obviously had a highly thought out and well-developed understanding of the Torah. This enabled him to apply the Torah’s lessons to his life. A person who has a deep understanding of Torah can strive to do this on his own level, and then he can more greatly appreciate the ‘Song’ of the Torah.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
- Cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
- Heard from my Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits.
- Bereishir, 18:33.
- This is a group comprising of the leading Rabbis who make vital decisions pertaining to the Jewish people.
- “Lorincz, “In Their Shadow”, Volume 3, page 284-5.
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