Torah | Moses final teaching, Write your own Torah, is just the beginning

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Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Isaiah 61:10-63:9


Nine-year-old Joey’s mother asked him what he had learned at Hebrew Sunday school. “Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bom-bers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”

“Now, Joey, is that really what your teacher taught you?” “Well, no, Mom. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!”

One of the great challenges facing rabbis, teachers and educators today is how to communicate the Torah in a language that is relevant. Moses, the greatest teacher of all, was faced with the same conundrum. Can stories, which are just words, help people feel as if they had lived it themselves? Could the Torah ever be as relevant for future generations as it was for the Jews who experienced Sinai firsthand? 

For the last five weeks of Moses’ life, during which the entire book of Deuteronomy takes place, he reviews, rebukes, exhorts and even pleads with the nation to remember and constantly relive those moments.

And he saves the best for last, the final mitzvah of the Torah, No. 613, is for every Jew to write their very own Sefer Torah (Torah scroll).

In the words of Maimonides (1135-1204), writing a Torah scroll is not just for the purpose of study, rather it is a sacred rite for everyone to accomplish in their lifetime. “It is a positive commandment for every Jew to write a Torah scroll … and even if one inherited a Torah from their parents, they must still write their own or commission a scribe to have it done” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sefer Torah 7:1).

While living a Jewish lifestyle certainly isn’t cheap, this takes it to a whole new level. For those who haven’t been in the “market” for a Torah, it makes paying tuition for Jewish day school  seem a relative bargain. But is it really ideal for each individual to own their own Torah?

For a fraction of that we can fill our homes with many holy books including the Five Books of Moses.

Indeed, many sages and commentators over the centuries have said that by filling our homes with Jewish books and literature, we fulfill this mitzvah. Additionally, maintaining or repairing existing Torahs can be as if we had written one. Better yet is when entire communities come together to share in this great mitzvah, with many individuals each sponsoring a letter. In addition to making every individual an owner, this offers the further benefit of Ahavat Israel (Love of fellow Jew), for there is no greater act or symbol of  Jewish unity than creating a Torah shared by thousands.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a new Torah dedication. It occurred to me that perhaps what Moses was trying to convey by having everyone write their own Torah was a great lesson, and the writing is only part of it. What comes after the writing is most transformative.

A new Torah dedication is quite a scene. First there’s a parade with the community  marching behind the Torah as its escorted like a bride under a chuppah. Then it makes its way into the synagogue, and all the other Torahs come out to welcome the new arrival. Then there’s singing, dancing  and seven hakafot (circles) as we do on Simchat Torah. This culminates in a festive meal; it’s a Torah wedding.

Moses is telling us if we want our children to engage Jewishly and remember that though Torah came from Sinai long ago, it’s just as relevant today, it’s not sufficient to just teach them and retell our story. Participate in the writing of a Torah, and when it’s finished,  hold it to your heart and then share it with them, and dance the night away together. It’s your pride and joy in Jewish living that they will most remember.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].