The Last Song

Torah Understood As A Divine Song


By Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Let us travel back in time to that moment at the end of Moses’s life wherein the centrality of the Torah in Jewish life comes to the fore. Having given the Jews at G-d’s request 612 commandments, Moses is instructed to give them the last commandment, number 613: “Now write down this song, and teach it to the Jewish people,” G-d says to Moses. According to tradition, “this song” refers to the whole Torah, meaning that the last mitzvah is to write down the whole Torah.

But why is the Torah called a song? Is the Constitution a song?

By referring to Torah as a song, it’s as if G-d were saying to us: “It is not enough that you study Torah cognitively as mere history and law. It must speak and sing to you emotionally.” Like an uplifting piece of music, Judaism should infuse our lives with happiness. Every mitzvah ought to introduce new celebration into our lives, new joyful notes into our relationships.

Indeed, joy is essential to Jewish living. We do not merely pray; we daven—meaning we sing the words we direct toward G-d. We do not read the Torah in a bland monotone; we sing the weekly portion. We do not just study the Talmud; we chant it in a sing-song manner. In fact, everything we do in the service of G-d is meant to be done with a song in our hearts and a skip in our steps.

There are many other insights provided by the “musical” aspect of Torah. For example: Music appeals to each person in their unique way. A scholar of music listening to, for example, the world-famous conductor Zubin Mehta, leading a Beethoven symphony, may have an intricate understanding of Mehta’s interpretation of the score—how he carefully directed the cadence, the pitch, the volume of each instrument to achieve just the right effect of the piece. At the same time, those who are unfamiliar with the finer points of music theory may similarly be enthralled by the beautiful symphony.

“Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehillat Yaakov” The Torah is the inheritance, the birthright, the song of every Jew. Of course, the more one studies, the greater and deeper one’s appreciation will be. But at its core, the message that emanates from the Torah is that whatever knowledge of Judaism you may have at this point, the song of Torah is yours to celebrate and claim as your own.

For that matter, two musicians can play the same tune, yet the “feel”—the product—may be very different. In the same vein, although we are each fulfilling the same mitzvot and studying the same Torah, the “sound” is very different, since we each bring our unique emotional and psychological perspective to the “music.”

Some of the best musical artists have been known to say that every time they perform a certain song on stage, even if it’s one of their classic hits that they’ve performed thousands of times before, they always bring a new energy or a fresh twist to the number. It’s never the same as the time before. So it is with Torah. Even the same person doesn’t do the same mitzvah twice, because each time you do it, you bring a different emotional experience to it. When you light Shabbat candles one week, you do so with the experiences and feelings of that particular week. The next week however, your experiences are different and so are your prayers when kindling that Shabbat light. Each experience has its own distinctive musical character.

You know, the first time you read a book, it’s exciting and engaging. But most of us cannot read the same book more than a few times. Not so with music. The more we hear a melody, the more we appreciate it. Torah is a song; the more we study its melody, the more we love it.

Finally, the Torah is called a song because a song becomes more beautiful when sung with many voices, interwoven in complex harmonies. When you talk and someone else starts talking, what is that called? It’s interruption! But when you are singing and someone else starts singing, what is that called? It’s harmony! When Torah becomes an egocentric speech, we clash, we “interrupt each other.” But when Torah is studied as Divine music, Jews sing in harmony. The Torah is G-d’s song, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir, the performers of His symphony. For three thousand years, the Torah has united our people, it has guided us, and it has infused our lives with purpose and with joy. A