The Torah's Final Mitzva

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major z"l.



Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh


The Torah's Final Mitzva

By Rav Michael Hattin





            As Rosh Hashana fast approaches and the Book of Devarim winds down, we read the double portion of Nitzavim-Vayelekh.  Having concluded his review of the mitzvot, Moshe now exhorts the people to fulfill them, and then proceeds to renew the Sinaitic covenant.  Warnings of doom are followed by the promise of redemption, and in language that ranks among the most poetic and moving of the Hebrew Bible, Moshe then goes on to offer the people the precious gift of Teshuva. 


            In a marked departure from our conventional understanding of this term, the "repentance" described in Moshe's address transcends the personal failures of the individual and instead embraces the mandate of the nation of Israel.  With prophetic insight, Moshe foretells the tribulations that will befall the people of Israel during the dark night of their downfall and exile, but also sees the morning star of redemption that will begin to rise when Bnei Yisrael finally reflect on the meaning of their checkered history and belatedly commence the process of Return.  This incremental "return," initially nothing more than an undefined and tenuous spiritual awakening stirred by a subconscious sense of God's patient beckon, will be paralleled in tangible form by the physical restoration of the people of Israel to their land, but not necessarily by their return to the Torah.  But once unleashed, the dynamic process of seeking God and finding Him will not be thwarted, for it will steadily gather sacred momentum and intensify, eventually culminating in the complete and irrevocable spiritual rapprochement between God and His people Israel.  Finally, in reciprocal fashion, Israel will achieve peace, prosperity, security and success in the land pledged by God to their ancestors. 


Behold, I place before you this day life and good, death and evil.  That is what I command you this day: to love God your Lord and to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, statutes and laws, so that you may live and multiply, so that God your Lord will bless upon the land that you will enter to possess.  But if your heart turns astray so that you will not listen, if you pull away and bow down to other gods and serve them, then I proclaim to you this day that you will surely be destroyed.  Your days will not be long upon the earth for which you cross over the Yarden in order to enter it and to possess it.  This day, I call heaven and earth as witnesses.  I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life, so that you and your descendents shall live.  Love God your Lord, hearken to his words and hold fast to Him, so that you will have life and length of days upon the land that God swore to give to your ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov (Devarim 30:15-20).


Here, in the Torah's closing chapters, the people of Israel are presented by Moshe with the starkest choice of all: follow God's ways and enjoy every benefit, or else abrogate His commands and court disaster.  The contrasts in the passage are absolute: life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, God and idolatry, eternal settlement in the land or interminable exile from it.  And unlike the opening passage of the Parasha in which Moshe first exhorted the individual to remain steadfast in his faith and then spelled out the ominous consequences of his non-compliance, this section speaks of the people of Israel as a whole and of their collective choices as a nation. 




            With the reading of these thundering sections, we are now nearing the conclusion of Sefer Devarim, and of the entire Torah.  Moshe has completed his review and explication of the mitzvot, he has assembled the whole people of Israel in order to reenact the Sinaitic Covenant, and he has anxiously enjoined upon them to faithfully observe the tenets of the Torah.  Now he is ready to die, as the leadership of the Israel is formally transferred to his faithful and steadfast student, Yehoshua.  Preparing to take his leave for the last time and cognizant of the awesome challenges that loom ahead, Moshe heartens the people and Yehoshua with the same stirring charge: "Be strong and courageous, do not be fearful or afraid" (Devarim 31:6-7).


            With the completion of the Torah text, Moshe entrusts the precious scroll to the hands of the Kohanim and the Elders.  That remarkable moment is marked by the introduction of the commandment of "Hakhel" or "Assembly."  Once in seven years, as the agricultural cycle begins anew and the people prepare to celebrate the festival of Sukkot, the entire nation is to gather as one in order to hear a public reading of the Book of Devarim at the "place that God will choose" (Devarim 31:11). 


            The event of Hakhel, incorporating reading, study and exhortation, encompassing in its wide embrace the men, women, and children, mirrors and perpetuates the overwhelming experience of the Revelation at Sinai.  There too, the entire people of Israel came together at the foot of the mountain to witness the awesome spectacle of God's teachings being proclaimed, to hear the thunderous pronouncement of His Decalogue.  In order to sustain the sublimity of that moment and to communicate to future generations an inkling of its grandeur, the command of "Assembly" is now introduced to the entire people of Israel.  There are events and ideas, the extraordinary ones, which outlast the mortal individual and live on in the collective memory of a people not as remote and timeworn events, but rather as living truths.   The generation of the Exodus may have already expired and Moshe is soon to follow in their footsteps, but the "word of our Lord will endure forever" (Yeshayahu 40:8).




            As Moshe completes his proclamation of the command of Hakhel, God instructs him to summon Yehoshua and to stand with him at the Tent of Meeting in order to receive His word.  As the two listen attentively, God spells out in ominous language the future infidelity of the people, their inevitable descent into idolatry, their abrogation of the Covenant of the Torah, and the portentous prospect of Divine inaccessibility: "I will surely hide My face on that day because of the wickedness that they have done, for they have turned to other gods…" (Devarim 31:18).  The testimony to that eventuality, as well as the eternal hope that the people will one day return, is embodied in the injunction that follows:


Now therefore write this Song, and teach it to the people of Israel so that they know it be heart, in order that this Song shall serve as My witness against them.  For when I bring them to the land that I swore to their ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they shall eat, drink and wax fat, then they shall turn to other gods and worship them, thus abrogating My covenant to anger Me.  When many great tribulations and troubles befall them, then this Song shall serve as witness, for it will never be forgotten from among their descendants… Moshe wrote this song on that day and taught it to Bnei Yisrael… (Devarim 31:19-22).


A number of salient themes are stated in this critical passage.  Yehoshua is about to assume leadership of the people, and Moshe will die.  The former will successfully bring them into the land and they will settle it and enjoy its bounty, but many will be the dangers that lurk in its verdant valleys and on its terraced hilltops.  The ubiquitous idolatry of the Canaanites – the alluring and licentious rites bereft of any higher meaning or ethical demand, the polytheistic relativism numbingly soothing in its service of the senseless images of gold and silver, wood and stone – will prey upon the people of Israel, and they will slowly succumb to its spells.  Drunk with material success and excess of God's blessing, they will embrace the corrupt worship and the vacuous values of their erstwhile foes.  The holy and precious covenant struck with the God of Israel, their singular destiny to be His treasured nation and to serve as an exemplar to all of humanity, will be discarded and forgotten.  But God Himself will withdraw His providential care and then their fate will be no different than that of the inhabitants of any other small and insignificant country: exile and almost certain extinction. 


            God, however, provides the people with the possibility of recovery, the glimmer of restoration and the hope of return.  The people of Israel will maintain a tenuous hold on their place in human history, to survive and to one day fulfill their mission, as long as a remnant remembers the "Song" and is able to transmit it down the generations.  There is much discussion among the commentaries concerning the identity of this "Song" and most see it as a reference to next week's Torah reading, the Song of Haazinu, Moshe's eloquent and poetic outline of Jewish history.  That poem's resonant words speak portentously of Israel's national success that is inevitably followed by their abrogation of the Covenant, their subsequent exile, dispersion, and dreadful torment among the nations, until such time as Israel finally remembers its exalted calling.  The Song of Haazinu then concludes with the promise of the people's eventual vindication, as God metes out justice to their oppressors and restores them to their land.  It is not difficult to see how Israel's safekeeping of such a startling vision, borne out exactly by the unfolding events of their history, might help sustain a people, even in the absence of their possessing any other meaningful connection to the very heritage that gave rise to it. 


            Among the classical commentaries, the Ramban adopted this explanation, remarking that:


"write for yourselves" (in the plural) refers to Moshe and Yehoshua, for both of them were commanded to write it.  This is because God wanted Yehoshua to already function as His prophet while Moshe was yet alive.  Moshe wrote the song while Yehoshua stood by his side and read it…The expression "this song" refers to the song that I (God) will now tell you, namely Haazinu.  The verse refers to it as "song" for Bnei Yisrael shall always recite it as a musical composition.  Also, it is composed with the structure of a song, for the textual divisions parallel the musical breaks (commentary to 31:19).   




            Notwithstanding this straightforward and eminently plausible reading of the commentaries, earlier sources identified this "Song" with the entire text of the Torah, and saw in the command to preserve it the final instruction of the Torah – to write a Torah scroll: 


Rabba said: even if a person had inherited a Torah scroll from his parents, it is nevertheless an obligation for him to write his own, as the verse states "now therefore write this Song" (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin 21b). 


A parallel source echoes this sentiment:


Rabbi Yehoshua bar Abba said in the name of Rav Giddel, who stated in Rav's name: One who purchases a Torah scroll in the marketplace has snatched for himself a mitzva.  If he himself writes it, however, it is considered as if he had received it from Mount Sinai.  Rav Sheshet added: if he corrected even a single deficient letter, it is as if he had written the scroll in its entirety (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Menachot 30a).


The early medieval authorities already discussed the practical ramifications of this commandment, and arrived at some novel conclusions.  The 14th century German scholar, Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel (the Rosh), who wrote a useful compendium of Talmudic law that is still regarded as a standard text, said the following:


The mitzva to write a Torah scroll was applicable in earlier generations when people studied the text from the actual scroll.  Nowadays, however, when the Torah scroll is written and then deposited in the synagogue ark for the liturgical purpose of public readings, it is a positive mitzva upon every Jew who has the means to write the text of the Pentateuch, the Mishna, the Talmud and their commentaries in order to study from them, as well as their children. The purpose of the command to write a Torah scroll was to facilitate the study of Torah, as the verse states: "teach it to Bnei Yisrael until they know it by heart."  It is through the study of the Talmud and its commentaries that one comes to in fact know the explanation of the mitzvot and the laws.  These then are the books that one is commanded to write…(commentary to Tractate Menachot 30a, paragraph 1).




            Significantly, for Rabbenu Asher, the command to write a Torah scroll is primarily not an injunction to formally copy out the text of the Torah after the manner of the scribe.  Rather, it is to provide the necessary groundwork for the direct study of Torah to be accomplished.  Since in earlier times the Torah scroll was itself the primary text that was studied, the Torah therefore spoke of "writing the Song."  Later, however, the initially oral traditions that had been associated with and sometimes generated through the direct study of the text of the scroll, themselves developed into written sources such as the Mishna and the Talmud.  The Torah scroll itself was no longer needed for direct study and instead became redefined as a purely liturgical object that was publicly read at set times. 


            Therefore, argues Rabbenu Asher, since the commandment to write the Torah is really a command to provide texts to facilitate study, the mitzva of "writing a scroll" is no longer to be understood as enjoining a scribal exercise with its precise requirements concerning parchment, ink, quill and highly specialized lettering.  Rather, it is the mitzva to write or to secure all manner of appropriate texts for Torah study, be they Pentateuchal or Mishnaic, in scroll form or as folios, handwritten or printed.  Of course, Rabbenu Asher was active before the invention of the printing press, when all texts were precious commodities because they were hand written.  But his emphasis is not on the "writing" of the text per se, but rather on making it available FOR THE PURPOSE OF STUDY. 


            The position of Rabbenu Asher is eminently reasonable.  It has the added advantage of absolving people from undertaking the onerous task of studying the scribal arts and transcribing a Torah scroll, a process that takes even accomplished scribes up to a year to complete.  Significantly, to adopt Rabbenu Asher's position is to single out Torah study as a highly unusual and precious mitzva, for where else does the Torah regard the necessary foundations of a mitzva as a separate mitzva act? 


            Thinking for a moment of other "scribal" commands, the Torah enjoins the placing of a mezuza upon one's doorposts (see Devarim 6:9).  It is obviously understood that in order to place a mezuza, one must first write one, but the Torah does not consider the inscribing of the mezuza to be separate mitzva act in its own rite.  For a timelier example, consider the mitzva of sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashana.  Here again, although it is the case that one cannot possibly sound a shofar unless one first prepares the animal horn in an appropriate manner, the Torah does not regard those preparations as a separate mitzva but simply as a prerequisite.  It must therefore be the case that the mitzva of Torah study is so paramount, that even the steps necessary to provide the required texts are enjoined by the Torah as freestanding mitzva acts.




            It must be pointed out that in contrast to Rabbenu Asher, other authorities such as the Rambam rule that the mitzva introduced in this week's reading is to write a scroll of the Torah as does a scribe, just as the straightforward reading of the Talmudic sources indicates.  Rambam makes no provision for the fulfillment of this mitzva through the acquisition or commissioning of other Torah texts.  In his Book of the Commandments, where he painstakingly records the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah, the Rambam says:


The Torah commanded that each person should write a Sefer Torah for himself.  If he writes it by his own hand, it is if he has received it from Mount Sinai.  But if he is unable to write his own, he may purchase one or hire a scribe to compose it for him.  This mitzva is derived from the verse  "Now, write for yourselves this song."  Since one is not permitted to write a scroll of the Torah that is composed of only some sections, the term "song" must therefore refer to 'the entire Torah that contains this song" (Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment #18).


In his Laws of the Sefer Torah recorded in the monumental Mishne Torah, Rambam records the remainder of the Talmudic ruling:


…although one may have inherited a Torah from his ancestors, it is nonetheless a mitzva to write one's own. 


He concludes:


It is a positive command for each Jew to write a Torah scroll for themselves…If one writes it by his own hand, it is as if one has received it from Mount Sinai.  If, however, he is not proficient enough to write it himself, then a scribe may write it for him…One who corrects even a single letter of a scroll, it is if they have written the entire scroll (Laws of Sefer Torah, 7:1).




            What could be the Scriptural source for Rabbenu Asher's inventive opinion, an interpretation that was incorporated into subsequent codes of law as normative?  Recall that earlier incidents in the Parasha included the formal transfer of leadership to Yehoshua, the completion of the Torah text, the commandment of "Assembly," and the injunction of writing the "Song" as the key to ensuring the survival of a remnant.  Clearly, the thrust of all of the above is the notion of perpetuating the Torah's teachings as living laws that are transmitted to subsequent generations, with all of the exhilaration of the experience at Sinai.  Really, says Rabbenu Asher, the study of Torah is qualitatively different, for it alone can guarantee the continued existence of the Jewish people.  Through the study of its laws and instructions, the people of Israel can yet achieve their destiny.  The continuity that the Torah craves can be guaranteed, by ensuring that the texts needed for its study are always available and accessible. 


            The existence of the Torah scrolls that fill many a synagogue ark will not ensure the survival of the Jewish people, says Rabbenu Asher.  One scroll more or one scroll less, when those scrolls themselves cannot serve as study texts, will not generate more Torah learning, the lifeblood of Israel.  Only the ongoing devotion to the STUDY of the text, an activity that has always been regarded as defining in Jewish tradition, can ensure its eternity, and for that study to take place, appropriate texts must be available.  The PROVISION of those texts therefore becomes the independent mitzva act of facilitating study, for the future of Israel as a faith community and a nation depends upon it.  Therefore, "write this Song, and teach it to the people of Israel so that they know it be heart, in order that this Song shall serve as My witness against them."


Shabbat Shalom