The Song of Torah
Thoughts on Simhat Torah 2019
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On the final day of Moshe’s life, he instructed: “And now, write this song and teach to Bnei Yisrael, put it in their mouths…” (Devarim 31:19). The Hakhamim interpreted “this song” as a reference to the entirety of the Torah, understanding it as an obligation for every individual to write a sefer Torah. Although there are several poetic passages in the Torah, the vast majority of its verses tell stories or present laws. Why, then, would Moshe characterize its general nature as a “song”?
The great neurologist Oliver Sacks suffered from a loss of hearing in his final years of life. He was intrigued by the way that he often misheard individual words in sentences that were spoken to him during those years, and probed the psychological and physiological causes of his “mishearings.” Sacks noticed that while he often misheard words, he seldom misheard music. The notes, melodies and phrasings remained as clear and rich to him then as they had been all his life. He explained that whereas speech is “open, inventive and improvised” and thus vulnerable to mishearing, playing and hearing music engages the procedural memory and emotional centers of one’s brain, thus minimizing the risk of mishearing.
By referring to the Torah as a “song,” Moshe was perhaps teaching that its messages must be perceived in a realm that lies beyond our intellect – the realm of emotion. Consider, for example, a particular description of the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “For Nietzsche, thinking was an act of extreme emotional intensity. He thought the way others feel.” Transcending their mundane existence as cerebral data-pieces, Moshe likewise commanded that the words of Torah be “put in our mouths,” and perceived as part of an everlasting and developing experience. An experience enriched by feeling – a “song” – resonates further than a lesson computed by the mind.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik often spoke about his “child-like” mindset while engaging in talmud Torah. “The adult is too clever,” he declared, “Utility is his guiding light. The experience of God is unavailable to those approaching it with a businesslike attitude.” He suggested that only the child – or an individual possessing a childlike emotional disposition – can appropriately engage the words of God. Adults depend upon their intellect to problem-solve. Children keep their eyes and hearts wide open. “The adult is not capable of the all-embracing and all-penetrating outpouring of the soul,” he wrote, “The most sublime crown we can give a great man sparkles with the gems of childhood.”
Am Yisrael has long dedicated itself on Shavuot to the intense study of the words and concepts of the Torah with the custom of all-night learning. Our minds are sharpened and thoughts cleansed by the Torah’s teachings on the holiday of Shavuot. Simhat Torah represents an alternate vehicle of connection. We sing and dance with the Torah, tapping into the joys of childhood, as we allow the “song of Torah” to penetrate our hearts and souls.