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.
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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.