Beth Kissileff is the author of Read­ing Gen­e­sis and a new nov­el, Ques­tion­ing Return. She is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

It is no acci­dent that the last Com­mand­ment in the Torah involves writ­ing. This is the very last thing enjoined on Jews, just as our book of instruc­tion is ending.

As a writer, I feel par­tic­u­lar­ly poised to dis­cuss why this is so impor­tant, why this direc­tive to write is what should remain with us as we end the read­ing of the Torah each year. Of course, the com­mand is not to write just any­thing; the com­mand is that each Jew should write a book of the Torah for them­selves. I want to say a bit about both this writ­ing and the oblig­a­tion for each Israelite to write a Torah, to explain what the act of writ­ing can do both for us col­lec­tive­ly and as individuals. 

Accord­ing to a medieval comependi­um of what the 613 Com­mand­ments are, the verse that com­pels Jews to each write their own copy of the Torah reads: And now, write for your­selves this song, and teach it in to the chil­dren of Israel”(Deuteronomy 31:19). This copy­ing over is some­thing each Jew must do. In the Tal­mud, Rab­bah states, Even if one’s par­ents have left him a Torah scroll, it is prop­er that he should write one of his own”(Babylonian Tal­mud, San­hedrin 21b). 

A few chap­ters ear­li­er in Deuteron­o­my, there is an injunc­tion on a king not to have an upraised” or haughty heart”(Deut 17:20). The anti­dote to this arro­gance? For the king him­self to take the text of this Torah and copy one for him­self, to immerse him­self in this text, to under­stand it, to make it a liv­ing thing for him­self by giv­ing it anoth­er life in his own writ­ing. Copy­ing over this book — mak­ing his own copy and not rely­ing on one made by his fore­fa­thers, as the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud dic­tates in San­hedrin 21b — will enable the king to con­nect with teach­ings that will effect his life and behavior.

It is the process of writ­ing, in reliv­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing the ideas and feel­ing in the text, that will itself give the king the emo­tion­al state he needs to serve his peo­ple and to gov­ern. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of these texts teach­es that the best king is one who can achieve a state of empa­thy in both his sub­jects and him­self; the laws they con­tain teach that writ­ing itself, the actu­al phys­i­cal process of tak­ing a pen and copy­ing over a text, has value. 

The verse about each per­son writ­ing a Torah for them­self calls the Torah a shi­ra, a song or poem (Deut 31:19). To me as a writer, this is very impor­tant, because poet­ry — as well as prose — can get at and express emo­tions that can­not oth­er­wise be explored direct­ly. When there is an impor­tant event or com­mem­o­ra­tion, we often wish to turn to a poet to express it, just as the Torah itself does in Exo­dus 15 with the Song at the Sea or in Deuteron­o­my 32, the final bless­ings of Moses to the people. 

In a way, by ask­ing us not to tread the paths walked by oth­ers, the Torah declares that the life of each indi­vid­ual be a per­son­al Torah scroll. For myself, writ­ing allows me to live my life more ful­ly by access­ing, work­ing out, and think­ing through emo­tions that will enable me to live my life well and have empa­thy for oth­ers. Both the king copy­ing over the text of the Torah and the indi­vid­ual Jew repli­cat­ing the text of her ances­tors in her own hand as a mod­ern writer are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the act of cre­at­ing our own songs of instruc­tion for our­selves and oth­ers as our ideas go out into the world. 

After all, the Torah itself instructs us that we must write some­thing new, recopy the text our­selves in every gen­er­a­tion in order to be faith­ful to its mes­sage. Hap­py Sim­chat Torah!

Beth Kissileff is s a writer and jour­nal­ist with a PhD in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. She has taught in var­i­ous fields of Eng­lish and Jew­ish Stud­ies at Car­leton Col­lege, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, Smith Col­lege and Mount Holyoke College.

Relat­ed Content:

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundrais­ing and writ­ing grants to devel­op a pro­gram to assist rab­bis of all denom­i­na­tions with writ­ing and pub­lish­ing books. Kissileff is a rab­binic spouse and author of the nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return as well as edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­ings.