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W7. Writing, Teaching & Learning the Song of Moses & Preserving the Words of Torah    [Make a Comment]

We are to write, teach & learn the Song of Moses and be proactive in preserving the words of the Torah.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed is He):

Deuteronomy 31:9 (Maimonides RP18; Meir MP15; Chinuch C613)
Therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the people of Isra'el. Have them learn it by heart, so that this song can be a witness for me against the people of Isra'el.

The "Song of Moses" to which this Scripture refers is recorded in Deuteronomy 32:1-43. The reason given for the people of Israel to learn it is so that its contents will be a witness against them when they turn toward other gods, God hides His face from them, and they begin to blame God for not being among them. Although this mitzvah looks toward a particular prophesied event in the history of Israel, it has general application for any time God's chosen people turn against Him.

Even though God's instruction to Moses was for the Israelites to write this particular portion of Scripture, the classical commentators do not even address the "song" and instead interpret the mitzvah as commanding all Israelites to write for themselves, purchase, or at the very least possess, a copy of the Torah in its entirety. Although they do not explain their reasons for coming to this conclusion, perhaps they were influenced both by the fact that this was the last commandment given before Moses' death, and also by the words of Deuteronomy 31:22-29:

So Moshe wrote this song that same day and taught it to the people of Isra'el. ADONAI also commissioned Y'hoshua the son of Nun with these words: "Be strong and full of courage; for you are to bring the people of Isra'el into the land about which I swore to them; and I will be with you." Moshe kept writing the words of this Torah in a book until he was done. When he had finished, Moshe gave these orders to the L'vi'im who carried the ark with the covenant of ADONAI: "Take this book of the Torah and put it next to the ark with the covenant of ADONAI your God, so that it can be there to witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stiffnecked you are! Here, even while I am still alive with you today, you have rebelled against ADONAI; so how much more will you do so after my death? Assemble for me all the leaders of your tribes and your officials, so that I can say these things in their hearing, calling heaven and earth to witness against them - because I know that after my death you will become very corrupt and turn aside from the way that I have ordered you, and that disaster will come upon you in the acharit-hayamim, because you will do what ADONAI sees as evil and provoke him by your deeds."

I believe that the commentators are correct in broadening their interpretation of this portion of Scripture, but are wrong in not retaining God's original instruction to write, teach, and learn the Song of Moses. The substance and message of the "song" is such that it makes sense for individual Israelites to learn it, whereas, Moses' instruction to place the full Torah next to the Ark of the Covenant was directed solely to the Levites who were ministers of the people. Consequently, I believe that the words of Deuteronomy 31:19 are meant to be about the "song" only, while Moses' instruction to the Levites to preserve the Torah (words which we assume God gave him) was a separate directive meant for the community's leaders. Although it can easily be separated out as a commandment standing on its own, I have decided to combine the two instructions into one mitzvah, understanding that it has both an individual and a corporate component. Finally, in contemplating Israel's responsibility to preserve the Words of the Torah, I cannot help but recall the shaliach Paul's words in Romans 3:1-2:

Then what advantage has the Jew? What is the value of being circumcised? Much in every way! In the first place, the Jews were entrusted with the very words of God.

In light of this mitzvah, it is important to consider how we should comply with its two parts. In my opinion, the first part - the instruction to write, teach, and learn the Song of Moses should be complied with by doing just that. Every Jew should write it out at least once in his or her life and, while doing so, contemplate and discuss the implications of falling away from God and into idolatry. Such an exercise and study may well be included as part of a young person's Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation. The second part - being instrumental in preserving the words of the Torah can be accomplished in many ways and over a lifetime. We can become Torah scribes and scholars, write books, teach, purchase and distribute Bibles, read Torah from the bimah, and so on. It is also worth noting that the manner in which synagogues preserve their Sefer Torah scrolls in an aron hakodesh is closely analogous to how Moses instructed the Levites to place theirs beside the Ark of the Covenant.

Maimonides, Meir, and HaChinuch interpret Deuteronomy 31:19 similarly. Maimonides states that every Jew is to have a Sefer Torah - a Torah scroll, and he then goes on to say that the man who hand-writes one himself is to be praised, and that the effect of doing so is as though he has received it personally from Mount Sinai. Maimonides further opines that if a man cannot write a Torah scroll, he should at least purchase one or have one made for him. Meir agrees and states, in addition, that purchasing chumashim also fulfills the commandment, as does correcting even a single letter in a Torah scroll that contains an error.


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