Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeilech
It is rare that I find myself reading things I wrote years back, and find myself nodding my head as though I read and /or spoke them for the first time in this Torah cycle. I wrote this commentary several years ago. With the gamut of emotional experiences that have pulled at me this year, I find myself needing to remember that we all have the necessity to sing or own song, to take our own soulful inventories, and write our own Torah. Please bear with me, as I share this piece this week; it is cathartic for me. I pray that this New Year sees us in good health … and in good voice …
Anybody remember Barry Manilow? He wrote the songs to make the whole world sing, well … he sang the song, but, actually, a guy named Bruce Johnston wrote it. I think of Barry (and by extension, Bruce) every year when we get to this part of the Torah. The very final command in Torah happens in this week’s portion. It is the command to each person to write his/her own Torah. God tells Moses, “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be My witness as to the people of Israel.” The “song” is the Torah, and even while some may argue that God was referring only to this piece of the text, it is not our tradition to isolate pieces of text for transcribing – scribes copy the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text.
As you have read here many times, the literal Torah is the least valuable use of Torah. Perhaps the sages really intended that each person should own a full parchment Torah, but I think that would be too simplistic. It might be nice if every home had its own Torah scroll, but too many sit on the shelves gathering dust; kind of like my Rabbinic Thesis (written in 1995 and never opened since). We own lots of books, but that does not mean that we use them.
I want to believe that the command for us to each write our own Torah is far more personalized. Unlike Bruce and Barry, I am not interested in writing a song for the whole world to be able to sing … my life song. I want to write a song that is unique to me, for me to sing; for me to live out. It is not that I do not want to share, but when it comes right down to it, I cannot imagine describing my life by someone else’s song. Roberta Flack found it most uncomfortable to sit and listen to a performer “kill her softly” as he sang as if he knew her whole life story, and sing it … as if she were not even there (see the song “Killing Me Softly”). We need to own our own story, and we are rightfully uncomfortable when people know more about us than we know about ourselves. When this happens we have to think deeply about how much we are or are not paying attention to our own lives.
Herein is the crux of Torah’s final command, as I see it. The text is not really telling us to copy the Torah; it is telling us to be intentional about writing our own song and our own book. We are supposed to be intentional about telling our story and living our lives in such a way that anyone who might chance through our pages will take away something of value for having engaged us. In doing so, we have to spend a great deal of time and energy in introspection, in prayer, in reflection … in the work of self awareness. This sounds easy, but too many of us do not have the time, energy, or patience to do this work, and we spend our lives trying to mimic someone else’s song.
It is never a crime to learn from each other. It is actually a gift we give each other, to help people move to better places in their lives. When we emulate some behavior or demonstrate some blessing that adds missing pieces back into their own unique puzzle, their world changes. My good friend Steve Dropkin once told me that if a musician hears a song he really likes and wishes he wrote it, he should be patient for he will actually do so. I never understood what he meant, until I started paying attention to the heavy influence some musicians really had on other musician’s work. Of course, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us that music was the prayer of the soul, and there are songs that strike me at the core of my soul, every time I hear them. We all have those songs that grip our hearts – there is nothing more exhilarating or more emotional than to hear a song and find yourself crying in the middle of it. The blessing of being adds meaningful chapters to one’s own Torah. This is an incredible gift. When that gift comes from our interaction with each other, we bring understanding and healing to the world.
At this time of year, tradition calls on us to perform a “kheshbon ha nefesh – an inventory of the soul.” Tradition calls on us to crawl inside ourselves and investigate what makes us tick. We need to read the book pages already published and see if they tell the story of our own lives … the way we want to be remembered. It is time to celebrate the blessings and heal the breeches. With Torah’s final command we bridge the distance between heaven and earth, and as we prepare to finish reading this Torah cycle and immediately being the next, we note that the final word of Torah is Yisrael; the last letter is a lamed. The first word of the Torah is Bereishit; the first letter is baet. Together, the lamed and baet spell “lev – heart.” It is with a full heart that we do our introspection. It is with a full heart that we give our best to each other. May we have more and more heart to give as we continue to grow in spirit. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Marc A. Kline