This week our parasha, Vaetchanan, gives us not one, but two of our pieces of liturgy. One of them is quite obvious: a relatively short paragraph towards the beginning of Chapter 6. It begins, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.” A powerful statement declaring God’s unity that goes on to dictate some of the ways we engage with God and the Torah in our everyday lives. The Shema becomes so powerful in our tradition that many Jews recite it three times a day, each time letting it serve as a reminder of how this six-word foundational motto translates into action.
But, earlier in the parasha there is another seemingly hidden liturgical line. “V’zot HaTorah asher sam Moshe…,” (Deuteronomy 4:44) “This is the Torah that Moses put before the Israelites.” Here, Moses continues his attempt to summarize and emphasize the story and laws of the Israelites. As Moses reminds the Israelites of God’s laws, also restating the ten commandments in this parasha, he reminds them of how they received them and the chain of tradition in which each of the Israelites has become an integral link. V’zot HaTorah…, this is the Torah that was given to Moses, who gave it to the People of Israel, who have passed it through the generations to us. Today, this verse, in combination with Numbers 9:23, has become a pivotal component to our Torah service, where we chant the Hebrew while raising the Torah scroll so that everyone may see the words inscribed upon the parchment.
For anyone who has ever had the honor of Hagbah (lifting the Torah), you know that the weight of Torah is not insignificant. It takes attention, dedication, and a certain level of reverence to be the one who displays Torah to the community. Many people get nervous before performing Hagbah, worrying about dropping the scroll, the balance, the strength necessary to keep it aloft. It’s a natural feeling, seeing as how we’ve placed so much importance on that not-really-as-delicate-as-it-looks document.
In truth, the Torah scroll can be quite intimidating.
In truth, Torah, in all its forms, doesn’t have to be.
Throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy Moses emphasizes and reemphasizes the importance of Torah and God’s teachings. Not only does he do this by recounting the major events and teachings of the previous four books of Torah, but by affirming, time and time again, that Torah is a choice, one which we make every day of our lives. Yes, Torah, the scroll, the Five Books of Moses, can take a lifetime of study to master. But the truest way to study Torah isn’t by looking in the ark.
Torah is and was always meant to be, a living document. A document written on our hearts, minds, and souls, not on parchment. Each of us, each in our own way, is the living embodiment of Torah. When we teach our children how to care for themselves and for others, we are living Torah. When we choose hope and imagination, over despair and futility, we are living Torah. When our example inspires those around us to become the best version of themselves, we are living Torah. When we care and protect those who cannot do so for themselves, we are living Torah. When we search out complexity, rather than hide in simplicity, we are living Torah. When, even on our darkest of days, we are drawn back to community, we are living Torah.
In so many ways Torah can truly take a lifetime of study to master. But, here at Jeremiah, we know that studying our lifetimes is what truly makes us masters of Torah. We know that Hagbah itself is an honor, but it pales in comparison to the honor of becoming a doogmah, an example of living Torah.
As we get closer to Elul (this year, beginning on August 12th), the Hebrew month immediately preceding our High Holy Days, we take time to tell our stories of living Torah, of embodying its teachings and the chain of tradition that began with Moses and continues through us, in our Jeremiah Gems project. Each of us is encouraged to take a few moments to reflect and record our own embodiment of Torah and submit them for the Gems project.
Zot HaTorah asher sam Moshe… this is the Torah that Moses gave to the People…
You are the Torah that the People continue to receive.