Vayelech: Poetic Licence

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

"Now, write for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites, so that this song will be a witness for the Israelites" (Devarim 31:19).

The simple meaning of this verse is a command to write shirat Ha'azinu, the Song of Ha'azinu, which bears witness to the tragedies that await the Jewish people if they do not follow the Torah. Nonetheless, our Sages (Sanhedrin 21b) derived from this verse an obligation for each individual to write their own Sefer Torah. On what basis did the Sages make this deduction?

The Netziv, in his introduction to the Chumash, offers a beautiful and most modern interpretation. The Netziv served as the great Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and, to the best of my knowledge, had very little formal secular education; yet, he explains that there is a fundamental difference between prose and poetry (song). Poetry, unlike prose, is not meant to be self-explanatory. Much commentary, investigation and analysis is needed to begin to understand the author's intent and meaning. To properly understand poetry, one must be trained in its methodology; one must be prepared to work hard at deciphering its many and often hidden meanings. There is much delight and pleasure in the discovery of new meaning and relevance in a poem, and the more one studies, the more meaning one sees.

Torah is the greatest of poems. But it requires delving beyond the revealed text, understanding its methodology and appreciating that its deeper meaning must be elucidated. It requires much training under the guidance of expert teachers. Just reading the text of the Torah, especially in a literal translation, is in many ways a distortion of Torah. Even those who have minimal Torah education understand that Jewish law and Jewish life is very different from what a literal reading of the Torah would seem to indicate. Reading the Torah as prose, and not as the beautiful poem that it truly is, is a most fundamental error.

As I well remember from my time in English literature class in high school, for those who are incapable of properly reading between the lines, poetry can be a frustrating bore. The words just don't seem to make sense, and are often written in such strange formulations. For those who never took a course in poetry, the Netziv points out another common feature of poetry; namely, its rearranging of words and lines to allude to other, unrelated concepts. Thus, an author may start each line with an initial, or, as is common in our liturgical poems, with a different letter of the alphabet. Poems are often written in certain literary styles, such as sonnets or ballads, which further constrains the author's choice of words.

So, too, the Torah will often add an extra word, or write a verse in an awkward fashion, to allude to some other component of Jewish law. While this may make the reading a little choppy, it is the tool for developing layer upon layer of hidden meaning in the Torah.

Great poetry is enduring as it stands the test of time, offering new insights and meaning to each succeeding generation. Great poetry inspires, excites and refreshes its educated readers time and time again. There is no greater poem than the Torah itself. It is all of the above, and more. It offers guidance for all the challenges that we face. We just have to search hard enough to hear its rhyme, rhythm and metre. Writing our own Sefer Torah, our own poem, is our never-ending responsibility and delight; it is not by chance that it is the last of the 613 mitzvoth.