Writing Our Own Sefer Torah
Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31 )
"And now write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel..." (1)
The Rabbis teach us that the song referred to in this verse is the whole Torah and that every Jew is commanded to write his own Sefer Torah.(2) The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that even if a person inherits his ancestors' Sefer Torah, he still must write his own Sefer Torah for himself.(3)
The commentaries offer a number of explanations for this law:(4) The Ktav Sofer explains that this mitzvah is teaching us that it is not sufficient for a person to observe the Torah simply because his parents habituated him to Torah observance,(5) rather he must create his own personal relationship with God based on a genuine recognition and appreciation of Torah. Writing one's own Sefer Torah and not relying on that of his parents indicates that a person is striving to develop his own path in serving God and not blindly follow that of his parents.
The Ktav Sofer uses this principle to explain another saying of the Sages about the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah: The Gemara in Menachot says about one who writes a Sefer Torah for himself, that it is considered as if he accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai . The Ktav Sofer explains that there are three levels of people who keep the Torah; He writes, "there are those who do it from love, there are those who do it from fear and there are those who only do it because they are habituated to it and the habit has become part of their nature." He continues to argue that since a person in the third category would not observe the Torah if not for habit then it is logical to say that had he been at Mount Sinai he would not have wanted to accept the Torah! In contrast if a person takes it upon himself to write his own Sefer Torah and not rely on that of his parents, he demonstrates that he wants to accept the Torah based on his own decision, rather than purely because he was brought up to do so. Accordingly, had he been at Mount Sinai he would have accepted the Torah anew and would not have needed anyone else to force him to do so, hence the Rabbi's statement that one who writes their own Sefer Torah is considered as if he received the Torah himself.
The lessons from this mitzvah are very relevant in these times. An essential element of genuine teshuva (repentance) is a desire to develop our relationship with God and to eliminate the sins that harm that connection. In order to do this it is vital that a person strengthen his faith and thereby remind himself of why he keeps mitzvot. Throughout the year a person may try to observe the Torah but there is the constant danger that he will fall into the trap of habit and lose focus on why he is keeping the Torah.
There is another key lesson that can be derived from the Ktav Sofer's explanation of why each person must write his own Sefer Torah. It is not enough that a child mimic his parents' form of serving God rather he must forge his own unique relationship with God, developing his own traits and talents to their fullest. At the same time, the mitzvah requires that he write the exact same Sefer Torah as that of his forefathers, teaching us that the degree of innovation that he makes cannot go beyond the boundary of the Torah that he inherited from his parents.
All Jews are born into a line of Tradition that goes back to Abraham; we are obligated to faithfully adhere to the instructions and attitudes that we receive from this line of tradition. A person cannot make up his own set of values or lifestyle; there is a Tradition that guides him how to live his life. But, at the same time, this does not mean that each person in the chain of the Tradition is identical in every way - there are many ways in which a person can express himself in the fulfillment of the Tradition.
This idea is also highly significant in the High Holy days. A person is not only judged for his mitzvah observance, there is also a judgment as to whether he is fulfilling his own personal purpose in life. This is expressed in the prayers of these days when we say that we are judged, 'maaseh ish upekudato' - man's actions and his purpose. 'Maaseh ish' refers to a person's mitzvah observance, but what does pekudato mean? Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explains that it refers to a person's tafkid (purpose).(7) A person is judged as to whether he utilized his own talents to the greatest ability. It is not enough for him to mimic his ancestor's lifestyle rather he must strive to find his own niche in serving God.
The Ten Days of Repentance is an excellent time for contemplation of one's life purpose and direction. May we all merit to break out of habit, reinvigorate our Service of God and reach our own unique potential.
1. Vayeilech, 31:19.
2. The poskim dicuss whether women are obligated in this mitzva.
3. Sanhedrin, 21b.
4. See Sefer HaChinuch and Darchei Mussar, Parshas Vayeilech.
5. Ksav Sofer Al Hatorah, Vayeilech, 31:19.
6. Menachos, 30a.
7. Heard from Rav Yissochor Frand shlit"a.