“Now, write this Song for Yourselves and Teach It” (Devarim 31:19)
With the above verse God commands Moshe to write down all the words of the Torah and make the Children of Israel contemplate these very words and use them as their guide to learning the art of authentic Jewish living. Commentators and philosophers have however wondered why the contents of the Torah are called a Song. Why not call it what it is: Words? Should it not have said: “Now, write these Words for yourselves and teach them to the Children of Israel?”
Just before the battle at Jericho, Yehoshua, the new leader of the people of Israel after the death of Moshe, is confronted with a heavenly creature looking like a man, who approaches him with a drawn sword in his hand. Yehoshua asks him: “Ha-Lanu Ata?” (Are you with us?) or with our enemies?” “He said: No, I am the commander of God’s legion. Now I have come! And Yehoshua prostrated himself before him….” (Yehoshua 5: 13-15)
The Talmud (Megilla 7a) interprets this rather strange and incomprehensible conversation in an allegorical way, whereby Yehoshua realized that the drawn sword indicated that God had sent this heavenly creature as a critique on the behavior of himself and all of Israel. He asked if this was perhaps due to the fact that their commitment to Torah was wanting: Have you come to us because we are not fulfilling the commandment: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us (Lanu) is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob”? (Devarim 33:4) No, answered the heavenly man, I have not come to criticize your commitment to the Torah on the basis of this verse, but I did come to criticize the people of Israel for their lack of commitment to the Torah on the basis of “Now!! Since it says: “Now, write this Song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel.”
Indeed the question of religious Jewish life is whether one is committed to Torah because it is merely an inheritance or because it is the Song of one’s life. Inheritance is a heritage which one wishes to continue on the basis of a common history or value but not because one’s whole life is interwoven with it.
A song however is something entirely different. It is the result of being overwhelmed with something which touches the deepest level of one’s soul. It ensues into a silence which is expressed in the verb-less melody and between the words after which even the words themselves evaporate into ultimate stillness. It is the speechlessness of the lips which carry the song to the ineffable. From descriptive words to indicative silence. An authentic song is therefore a protest against words getting frozen.
Such a song comes about only when one does not just commit oneself to a lifestyle but when one’s whole being becomes absorbed with its inner dimensions. Only when one no longer knows the difference between the doer and the deed, the singer and the song, can one speak of an authentic religious experience. One needs to reach a state where one no longer sings the song but is the song. Not only one’s lips need to sing but even one’s feet.
This is the reason why the Torah is called a Song. “Now write yourselves this Song” means that it needs to become one’s ongoing Song of life and not just an inheritance. It calls on man to turn his life into a work of art in which every move becomes holy and dignified.
It is told about the poet Reina Maria Rilke, that he was once asked by a young man whether he should become a poet. “Only when you cannot live without being a poet” was his response. And so it is with a life of Torah. Only when one cannot live without it does it become a Song.
(1) Based on an oral interpretation in the name of the late Ponevezher Rav, Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman.z.l.