400 Torahs (Shavu’ot 5773 Bulletin Message)

The following message appeared in the Shavu’ot 5773/2013 bulletin of Congregation Sons of Israel of Amsterdam, NY.


Shalom Sons of Israel,

You may have once sung the following: Torah tzivvah lanu Mosheh; morashah kehillat Ya’akov. (“The Torah that was commanded to us by Moses is an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.”)

These words are taken from Deuteronomy 33:4, from Moses’ departing speech that closes the Torah. We often sing it when we are dressing the Torah, shortly before returning it to the Ark. It’s the tune that goes, “Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah, Torah tzivvah lanu Mosheh…” Whoever came up with this little ditty wanted to make sure we knew we were singing about the Torah.

This verse must have been oft quoted in an early era. In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14a), the rabbis boast to Rav Hamnuna about how Rabbi Ammi wrote 400 Torahs! Out of disbelief, or maybe jealousy, Rav Hamnuna responds by saying, maybe he just wrote the word “Torah” 400 times, writing “Torah tzivvah lanu Mosheh” over and over. Looking at this funny exchange between rabbis, Rabbi Isaac Karo (1458-1535) quotes, from his unique version of this Talmudic passage: “One who writes the verse ‘Torah tzivvah lanu’ in a Torah scroll—it is as if that person wrote the whole Torah entirely.”

As Rabbi Karo delves further into the significance of this verse we’re always singing and citing, he proposes that we can see in each word of this verse an allusion to one fundamental tenet of Jewish faith in Scripture and prophecy (Derashot Rabbi Yitzchak Karo, edited by Shaul Regev, Bar-Ilan: Ramat-Gan, Israel, 1995; pages 218-221). Inspired by Rabbi Karo’s Shavu’ot sermon, I’d like to conclude my final bulletin message to the Amsterdam community with some thoughts on what we can learn from the “Torah, torah, torah, torah…” verse.

Torah: We Jews are a people of The Book. Without all of our books, we are chopped liver.

Tzivvah (“Commanded”): We are a people of mitzvot. Mitzvot—meaning not only “commandments,” but also “connections”—are what keep us connected both to each other and to God.

Lanu (“To Us”): It is true that people of other faiths read the Old Testament, and anyone can read anything written by a Jew, but our relationship to, and possession of, our sacred words make those words all that much holier.

Mosheh (“Moses”): Moses’ name in Hebrew means literally, “He draws” or “He pulls.” It is no accident that the intermediary between God and the Jews is this active force who has to draw and to drag (read: to schlep) the people through the wilderness, and Moses also is the force who draws down from the Heavens all the Divine messages and Divine attributes of compassion that remind the people Israel of God’s love.

Morashah (“Inheritance”): Our tradition is ours eternally, and for all generations. The transmission of our inheritance from one generation to the next is absolutely essential for the survival of the God of truth and for the truths for which we and God stand.

Kehillat (“Congregation”): We are not merely individuals living in isolation. Jews must be a people and a collective. It is a Jewish imperative that we stand for others beyond our selves and that we never run from the community.

Ya’akov (“Jacob”): Jews are the bearers of what we call “the Jewish collective memory.” Even if we doubt whether we had a historical ancestor named Jacob, we believe in our founding ancestors. When we don’t have memories, we strive for memories. Every living Jew today—by birth and by choice—stood at Mount Sinai during the revelation of the Torah. We all remember our father Jacob because his is the story of how we came to be the people that accepted the Torah and all its traditions.

I’ve truly enjoyed serving the Amsterdam community as its student rabbi over the past year. As my plans call for me to spend some time as a newlywed in Israel early next year, it was a bittersweet decision for me not to return next year, but I will often and fondly think of Congregation Sons of Israel in the Holy Land. I hope that the years to come will bear witness to much joy and Torah in Congregation Sons of Israel, and I pray that the congregation will be blessed with peace. Shalom, Sons of Israel.

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