The Song of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Noam Weinreich

During the course of God’s final commandments to Moshe (Devarim 30:14-30), he provides a warning that one day Bnai Yisrael will worship other gods and disobey him. As a response to this future calamity, God offers a puzzling solution. God commands Moshe to write down a song, a “שִּׁירָ֣ה”, and states this song will serve as a witness to God.

What is this song which Moshe writes?

According to Rashi, the song refers to Haazinu, the Parshah immediately following this episode. This is of course the simple interpretation, as the final verse preceding Haazinu describes Moshe as speaking a song to Bnai Yisrael. Ramban further points out that he verses in Haazinu are divided analogously to how verses in music are divided.

However, on Sanhedrin 21b, Rabbah derives the halakha that one is required to write a Sefer Torah from the verse where God commands Moshe to write down a song (Devarim 30:19). This interpretation only makes sense if Rabbah understands the song as a reference to the Torah itself! Corroborating this interpretation, the Ralbag notices that immediately after God’s commandment to write down a song, the verses describe Moshe as writing down a Torah, and then returns to the subject of the song before Haazinu. Ralbag takes this to mean that the Torah is being referred to as a song, including, but not limited to Haazinu. He further buttresses this point by challenging the notion that God would place so much emphasis specifically on Haazinu. The Ralbag believes that God would stress the importance of this song so much only if it referred to the entire Torah.

Why would the Torah be referred to as a song? Remember that Ramban suggests that Haazinu can be called a song because of the structure of its verses.  While the Torah as a whole does not share this structure, I’d like to suggest four models in which understanding the Torah as a song, or as poetry (these two will be equated here), provides distinctive ways of appreciating the Torah.

The first model is derived from the commentary of the Netziv, in his introduction to his Torah commentary, the Ha’amek Davar.  The Netziv writes that a defining distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry does not present its subject matter straightforwardly. Rather; it relies on allusions and symbolism, and requires commentary to extract the full meaning of its content. Comparing Torah to poetry tells us that even on a “Peshat” level, the Torah is essentially layered and symbolic, even before arriving at the “Remez” or “Derash” layers of the text.  

The second model is based on a Dvar Torah written by Rabbi Amnon Bazak. Why did God think that a song would be an effective solution to Bnai Yisrael’s future rebellion. Rabbi Bazak writes that the special feature of a song is how easy it is to memorize, and at the same time, to internalize. Therefore, when the Jews start to sin, they will have this song “engraved in the inner conscious of Bnei Yisrael”.  The Torah should be a part of us in the intimate way songs can be.

The third model draws on a passage from the philosophical work Sacred Attunement, by Michael Fishbane. In the course of developing his understanding of Judaism and Torah specifically as an enterprise in meaning creation (עיין שם), he discusses the value of poetry. When we study poetry, each word has significance beyond what it typically does. Paying close attention to each word and its meaning disrupts our habitual, often mindless way of interpreting the world, and causes us to reinterpret the world in a novel way. So too, the Torah can disrupt how we normally think of the world and construct meaning and structures from the random stimuli our eyes present to us, and to reconstruct meaning in a new light, based on the understanding it offers us.

The fourth and final model looks to a comment by the Aruch Hashulchan in his introduction to Choshen Mishpat .

וכל מחלוקת התנאים והאמוראים והגאונים והפוסקים….דברי אלוקים חיים המה… זוהי תפארת תורתינו….וכל התורה כולה נקראת שירה, ותפארת השיר היא כשהקולות משונים זה מזה, וזהו עיקר הנעימות.

In all the disputations of the [rabbis throughout the ages] . . . (each side) represent the words of the Living God….Indeed, that’s the magnificence of our Torah.  The entire Torah is called a song, and the magnificence of song is (the harmonization of) different and distinctive voices.   Indeed, that is the very essence of the pleasure we derive from it.

According to the Arukh Hashulchan, the Torah is like a song in that different people can have different interpretations and understandings, and yet their voices are unified in one harmonious output. In ordinary speech, when multiple people speak simultaneously, our ears hear chaos and cacophony. In a song, however, multiple voices can contribute their own unique sound to a harmony, which culminates in an enhanced and beautiful song. So too with the Torah. It is a positive development that we have so many different voices in our tradition, each contributing a distinctive sound.

So now we have four models for understanding why the Torah is metaphorically referred to as a song, or poetry. It draws attention to the necessity of interpreting the Torah beyond its surface level understanding. It points to how the Torah can be internalized and on the tip of your tongue. It indicates how we can use the Torah to draw attention to how we interpret the world around us, causing us to take a more active role in how we create meaning. Finally it emphasizes the ability of the Torah to incorporate so many different streams of thought and interpretations harmoniously.

Noam Weinreich (SBM ’14) is currently a senior at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.

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