People of the Book: Take These Words to Heart

HAAZINU, Deuteronomy 32:1-1-52

Two Soviet birds from Moscow are flying north to the more open Finland. As they soar toward the border they are met by two Finnish birds. Ha'azinu – "Listen up."

"Life must be horrendous in the Soviet Union?"

"It's okay."

"You probably don't have enough to eat or proper health coverage?"

"It's adequate."

"So why are you so anxious to leave?"

"Because back there, they don't let us sing."

In his magnificent memoirs All Rivers Run to the Sea, Elie Wiesel speaks movingly about his father and grandfather. His grandfather, R. Dudya Feig, was a pious and devout Chasidic Jew. His father, Shlomo, though religious, had a more modern and acculturated mien. "From my father I learned to speak – from my grandfather I learned to sing," writes Wiesel.

How interesting that when Moses, on this last day of his life, exhorts the Jewish people to abide by Torah he mixes metaphors. At the conclusion of what our tradition calls, the "Song of Ha'azinu," we encounter the following verse. "Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people. … Apply your hearts to the words … with which you are to instruct your children … ." Moses was teaching us to speak and sing.

There must be an element of song to text; without a melody, the lyrics can be dry. Without it, the text lacks texture. Life cannot be lived on prose alone. Words can inform and enlighten the mind, but songs can inflame and ignite the heart.

Did you know that Jews traditionally don't simply read the words of Jewish texts – we sing them, we sway and dance with them. Teachings of our Torah are not just a narrative – they are a melodious nigun.

So intimate is the connection between speech and song that the very source of the imperative to write a Torah scroll is derived, according to Maimonides, from the verse that alludes to this "Song of Ha'azinu." V'ata kitvu lachem et hashira hazot: "And now, write for yourself this song." This is, parenthetically, the 613th of the 613 mitzvot, according to many scholars.

Part and parcel of the command, suggests the author of the Sefer Hachinukh, is the mitzvah to accumulate a library of Jewish books; books that are suffused with the messages, values and ideas of the Jewish people.

But it's not enough to acquire the books – you must read them. It's not enough to go through these books – their teachings must go through you.

Fifteen years ago, a couple in their 60s "confessed" that they were buying, essentially for the first time, Jewish-themed books. I complemented them, but they seemed somewhat despondent.

"Rabbi," they said, "We're too old to change. What good is this going to do?"

I asked if they had grandchildren. They did. And so I asked what would be so terrible if their grandchildren started to find Jewish books in their grandparent's home – and even caught them reading them!?

Wait, there's a delicious P.S.

Their grandson eventually enrolled in a Jewish day school. Imagine their surprise when they shared with me their grandson's essay for admission. It seems the boy was close to his grandparents – even considered them his heroes. He wrote that he was inspired and impressed when he visited them because they were always reading Jewish books!

How about a Rosh Hashanah resolution? Read some Jewish books; hold them, and they will hold you. Chant their words, and they just might enchant you.

Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.



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