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A Letter in the Scroll

Friday, 19 September, 2014 - 1:00 pm

Over 4 million iPhones were ordered on the first day that Apple released the iPhone 6. Soon we will also have the Apple Watch.  As technology gets easier to produce in miniature, we will see even more products with greater capabilities than ever before.

This is a real boon for Torah enthusiasts, who are itching to look up a verse or study the Talmud on the fly. Okay, granted that most people may not have that in mind as its primary use. But for ardent – and lackadaisical – students and adherents, the opportunities to study and engage in Jewish ritual have never been so close to our fingertips.

Can you imagine how much effort was necessary for our grandparents to study Torah? And they had it easy compared to those who lived before the printing press.

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In this week’s double parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, the instruction is given to write a Torah scroll. This is the final of 613 commandments in the Torah.

As Rabbah states in the Talmud: Even though our ancestors have left us a scroll of the Torah, it is our duty to write one for ourselves, as it is said: “Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths.”

Why, however, is the Torah referred to as a song?

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Although we have advanced greatly and are now able to access all the words of the Torah in one tiny chip, we are still obligated to write a Torah scroll. (In fact, this mitzvah is incumbent on every person; those who cannot afford to commission the writing of an entire Torah scroll should participate in its writing by purchasing a letter in the scroll). The Torah scroll is – to this day – written by a trained and certified scribe, called a sofer, on parchment. Each of the 304,805 letters are transcribed by hand with a quill.

There is something special about the painstaking effort and devotion necessary to write a Torah scroll.

The feel of the parchment. The scent of the scroll, especially as it ages. The richness of people that have touched it.

But it is not merely the preservation of tradition. Judaism is not meant to be a nostalgic museum that we visit once in a while. It’s meant to be a way of life. G-d desires that our day-to-day lives be imbued with holiness.

The greatest challenge and cost in writing a Torah scroll is the investment of human energy and attention. The sofer must carefully write each letter, exactly as it appears in an earlier Torah scroll, which is an exact replication of another one, dating back to the times of Moshe.

Perhaps it is this attention to detail – where each letter deserves and receives its own kavanah (mindfulness) – that G-d insists upon.

Yes, I’m all for studying Torah on the go. I have several apps that help me daven, study Torah and know when Shabbat begins and ends. But nothing can replace the care and devotion that we must invest in our relationship with G-d and His Torah.

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I don’t profess to be much of a musician. But this much I do know.  If every note is the same, it’s not really music.  When each note plays its own role, the song comes to life. There are jubilant tunes and there are earnest melodies. Each one is comprised of specific notes. Take out a note and you’ve changed it all.

By calling the Torah a song, we are being reminded that each letter is unique. Each perspective is critical. The message each letter calls out cannot be mass produced. It is with particular commitment, that each letter finds its own meaning and place.

***

As we stand on the eve of a New Year, we too yearn for G-d’s individual attention. We each have our own concerns; our specific needs; our personal battles and struggles. We beseech our Father in Heaven to bless the entire world with goodness. But we also have our personal entreaties.

As I prepare to ask G-d to look at me and my requests – amongst all others, the parsha reminds me to look at His Torah with the selfsame dedication to each detail.  It’s only one letter in the scroll. But the validity of the entire scroll depends on it.

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