The moment had come. Moses was about to die.
With words of blessing and encouragement he hands on the mantle of leadership to his successor Joshua.
The time had come for another age, a new generation, and a different kind of leader.
But before he takes his leave of life God has one last command for him, and through him, for the future:
“And now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel,
put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me among the children of Israel”
understood by rabbinic tradition to be the command to write, or at least take part in writing, a Sefer Torah.
Why this command? Why then, at the end of Moses’ life? Why make it the last of all the commands?
And if the reference is to the Torah as a whole, why call it a “song”?
The oral tradition is here hinting at a set of very deep ideas.
First, it is telling the Israelites, and us in every generation, that it is not enough to say,
“We received the Torah from Moses,” or “from our parents.”
We have to take the Torah and make it new in every generation. We have to write our own scroll.
The point about the Torah is not that it is old but that it is new;
it is not just about the past but about the future.
It is not simply some ancient document that comes from an earlier era in the evolution of society.
It speaks to us, here, now – but not without our making the effort to write it again.
And why call the Torah a song?
Because if we are to hand on our faith and way of life to the next generation, it must sing.
Torah must be affective, not just cognitive.
It must speak to our emotions.
If our Torah lacks passion, we will not succeed in passing it on to the future.
Music is the affective dimension of communication, the medium through which we express, evoke and share emotion. Precisely because we are creatures of emotion, music is an essential part of the vocabulary of mankind.
Music has a close association with spirituality.
Song is central to the Judaic experience.
We do not pray; we daven,meaning we sing the words we direct toward heaven. Nor do we read the Torah.
Instead we chant it, each word with its own cantillation.
Music is the map of the Jewish spirit, and each spiritual experience has its own distinctive melodic landscape.
Judaism is a religion of words,
If we are to make Torah new in every generation we have to find ways of singing its song a new way.
The words never change, but the music does.
It is the songs we teach our children that convey our love of God.
So it is with a poetic sense of closure that Moses’ life ends with the command to begin again in every generation,
writing our own scroll, adding our own commentaries,
the people of the book endlessly reinterpreting the book of the people, and singing its song.
The Torah is God’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir. Collectively we have sung God’s song.
We are the performers of His choral symphony. And though, when Jews speak they often argue, when they sing, they sing in harmony, because words are the language of the mind but music is the language of the soul.