It’s All Torah
Years ago, when I was a student living in the mystical city of Safed in Israel’s Northern District, a teacher of mine asked our group of young seekers, “What is the most important book in your life?” Many of us spent hours studying various books and reference materials, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. How then could one book be the most important out of the many?
Suspecting we knew the answer that would please our teacher, we replied practically in unison, “The Bible!” Turns out he’d asked a trick question. Our teacher’s intention in making this basic inquiry, we later learned, was to inspire us to think more deeply and globally about how we live, what we value, and how we spend our time.
When Moses delivered his final words to the congregation of Israel, perhaps he had a similar intent. Upon completing the recitation of Ha-azinu, a complex poem reflecting the Israelites’ history and destiny, the following in junction is offered:
Moses . . . recited all the words of this poem in the ears of the people. And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all of Israel, he said to them: Take to heart to all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life, through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan. (Deut. 32:44–47)
What is striking about this passage is the repeated use of the word all (kol). Certainly, the poetry of Ha-azinu tells an encompassing story, but it hardly represents the totality of the Israelite experience. The repetition of all, then, points the reader beyond the confines of our immediate experience of the text. The Rabbis of the Talmud recognized this when they commented that the phrase “All the words of this poem” (kol divrei hashira hazot) refers to the whole Torah, not just the final poem(Nedarim 38a). Just as a poem requires the reader to deconstruct, analyze, hypothecate, and appreciate, so too the poem that is the Torah also calls out to us to engage with it all.
“Simu levavchem” (Take to heart / Pay attention), Moses declares, because the tools you need for a long and meaningful life are contained in these teachings. Like any precious material ,however, it needs to be “mined.” On this passage, the French medieval commentator Rashi quotes the rabbinic dictum, “The words of Torah are as ‘mountains hanging by a hair’” (Chagigah 10a). This enticing visual metaphor suggests that the study of Torah requires delicate concentration and full focus. It invites us to probe, make sense of, and apply the wisdom we find there.
When we study Torah deeply, we are like the witness to the mountains, not daring to pull our eyes away from this spectacular site for fear of missing something. The beauty of Torah study is that we are called upon to bring our whole being, all of our life experience, and all of our intellect to unravel its mysteries and apply its teachings to the present day.
But the forceful use of the word all in Moses’s teaching suggests that while the study of Torah is of value in and of itself, the application of Torah to our daily lives is the essential point. Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, an early Hasidic master, taught, “The essence of what we accomplish in our Torah study and prayer depends on our actions in the world” (Ohr Ha’meir on Parashat Eikev). Moses’s final words indicate that the study of Torah was never meant to be an activity we merely do as an aside. It is the activity of life—be it mundane or intricate—that permeates everything we do. Whether we’re doing the dishes or closing a business deal, the Rabbis warn us: don’t take your eyes off the mountain. Live Torah fully. Be mindful of a path that is present and passionate.
Certainly, we are enjoined to set aside time to study so that we can gain the knowledge of our text and traditions. But, if that study doesn’t lead to living an informed life, then the teaching becomes a trifle, or literally an empty thing (d’var reik). “For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life”(ki lo dv’ar rayk hu mekem; ki hu chayeichem): all the world is a stage for Torah. It is found in conversations, editorials, art, and music.
A true story: a rabbinic colleague of mine was once questioned by the IRS for including the theatrical trade paper Variety in his tax deductions. The rabbi responded, “Do you know how many good sermons I have gotten out of that paper!?” I am not sure how much the tax man appreciated that, but the point is that Torah is everywhere, or at least, to paraphrase a well-known Hasidic teaching, “wherever we let Torah in!”
This, then, is the lesson gleaned from my teacher in Safed. Is the answer to the “most important book” question “The Holy Bible”? No. Not necessarily.
The most important book, he suggested, was not our book of laws, but our book of days. Today he might say our “calendar app.” What we choose to do with our time and with whom we choose to spend it informs the very character of our lives and the length of our days. Moses’s final words do not dictate that we spend every moment studying Torah, but that in every moment weallow the Torah to resonate.
May we be blessed to welcome this New Year with the intention to make it all Torah all the time; tofill our days with Torah and teach it through our actions to the next generation, thereby fulfilling the command to “enjoin them upon our children that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching.”
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.