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(Deut 16:18 - 21:9)

D'varim/Deuteronomy 17:18   And he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll, from before the priests, the Levites.


This is part of the instructions for the life and conduct of a Jewish king. Who Is ...

Abraham Ibn Ezra: (1089-1167 CE), born in Tudela, Spain; died in the South of France after wandering all around the shores of the Mediterranean and England; a philosopher, astronomer, doctor, poet and linguist; wrote a Hebrew grammar and a commentary on the Bible
Ibn Ezra comments that this is the first thing that the king must do after ascending the throne: his first act is to write with his own hand a Torah scroll. Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch adds that "With this act he acknowledges that, in the first place the Torah is given for him, that he is not above the law ... that it defines his mission as king ... that he will stand as an example before the people as the first and foremost son of the Torah."

So far so good, but we know that writing a complete Torah scroll today takes a professional scribe nearly a year. A king in early biblical times would have some degree of literacy, but would surely not be as capable as a professional scribe. Would he be able to put ruling the kingdom on hold for a year or more until he had written the scroll out for himself by hand? Commentators ancient and modern have opinions on these questions: how many scrolls did he have to write, what exactly was "this Torah", was it just writing or was some learning also involved, what was it supposed to achieve?

Richard Elliott Friedman offers two possible minimalist alternatives: "It is unclear whether this means a copy of this Law of the King (i.e. verses 14-20) or a copy of the full law code of Deuteronomy in which it is now contained." The early rabbis suggest that, on the contrary, it was two full copies of the Torah (Sifrei 160); this is reflected in the Artscroll translation of the verse: "he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah". Hirsch explains that the two copies are "one copy to be deposited on his bookshelves to be at the same time a permanent witness for and against him, and the other to accompany him constantly wherever he goes", but Abaye offers the concession that "the one that goes in and out with him is to be written in the form of an amulet" so that it can be worn (b. Sanhedrin 21b), so limiting the scope of the project.

The phrase was used in Second Temple times as "repetition of the Torah" is and What Is ...

Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era
Targum Onkelos translates it into Aramaic as (patshegen oraita). in turn translates the word as "repetition". Lowenstein1 interprets this to mean that the king must not only write out the Torah, but be able to repeat it orally when asked questions: "and they examine [him] in the court of the priests, in the court of the Levites and in the court of the Israelites who are of suitable character to marry into the priesthood" (t. Sanhedrin 4:7). This matches the original verse text, which instructs that the king must copy the scroll, "from before the priests, the Levites". Friedman comments, "The Levites have the text of the Law and the king makes himself a copy from the text that they have before them".

While the NJPS version offers the translation "he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests", Jeffrey Tigay - the author of the JPS Commentary - rejects that, saying: "rather, that he shall write a copy of this teaching for himself on a scroll from the one that is in the charge of the levitical priests". According to Philo, not only is the king is required to make his own copy because writing makes a more lasting impression than does merely reading, but he is enjoined to read and study what he has written every day so that he may both remember and desire to obey the commandments (Special Laws, 4.160-161). A personal investment of time and effort is necessary to ensure that the text is really understood and make a part of the king's life and government.

The early believers in Messiah Yeshua also took great care to ensure that the stories and teachings of Yeshua were preserved for future generations. Luke's gospel starts:

Dear Theophilos: Concerning the matters that have taken place among us, many people have undertaken to draw up accounts based on what was handed down to us by those who from the start were eyewitnesses and proclaimers of the message. Therefore, Your Excellency, since I have carefully investigated all these things from the beginning, it seemed good to me that I too should write you an accurate and ordered narrative, so that you might know how well-founded are the things about which you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, CJB)

It shows that considerable time and effort have been invested in researching, collating, writing and rewriting the text to ensure that it is both accurate and meaningful. It should be consistent with the oral teaching that has preceded it and confirm the truth that has already been imparted. In the same way, Rav Sha'ul instructs Timothy: "what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2, ESV). This is no hole-in-the-corner operation, but a public ministry that is be continued both in style and content. Timothy is not only to teach others what he has heard from Sha'ul, but the teaching is to be in public and it is to include the directive to teach others so that the Gospel remains multi-generational, passing on to successive generations of believers.

If the aim of the writing a Torah has both an inward and an outward application - to learn and apply the truths of G-d's word in our own lives and to be an accurate and ordered witness of G-d's truth for those who see or "read" us - how do we as believers in Messiah Yeshua write our Torah?

Some would say that our Torah is our testimony, the story of our lives. Like the king of Israel, who is to write his Torah as the first action of his reign, some think that giving one's testimony is something done just once when being baptised: a narration of your personal journey to faith in Messiah. Others share their testimony as part of street evangelism or door-to-door work, telling people about how G-d has changed them and their lives when they came to know Him. But this is almost entirely narrative from us and is outwardly directed.

Some would say that our Torah is our rule of conduct. Some church denominations are tee-total, insisting on a life of total abstinence from alcohol; others refuse re-marriage to divorcees. Individuals have a variety of business, ethical or private "standards" that they observe. But this is almost entirely rules and regulations and has a largely internal focus.

Our Torah must be much bigger than either of these. The largest component has to be Yeshua, who is our Torah; we must become totally familiar with Him as we read about His words, stories and actions again and again in the Gospels. Then, as the Holy Spirit makes us more like Yeshua, we will find our lives becoming prophetic as we feel and live out the concerns that are close to G-d's heart; our Torah will become a riot of colour as the concerns and causes that are moved by G-d's compassion and justice are daubed on the canvas. Teaching and sharing too, as we grow in G-d's wisdom, will add order and pattern to our Torah as G-d uses us to encourage others and declare His truth. History also has its part to play, as we see the godly characteristics of other peoples' lives - both in and outside the Bible - and sketch little cameos in the corners of our Torah as we try to emulate their kingdom behaviour.

Not then the regular ink on vellum image of a traditional Jewish Torah scroll with its wooden handles, velvet cover and silver finicules; instead a pastiche of colour, texture, paint: a collage of newspaper clippings and cropped photographs with blocks or columns of neat handwriting decorated with daisy and heart doodles in coloured pencil, scribbled notes awash with high-lighter pen, post-its (of course!) and dollops of solid oil or guache paint mixed with swatches of fabric - a favourite childhood shirt, a wedding dress, fluff from a teddy bear's ear - sequins, tapestry threads and tissues. These tell the story of our lives and our life in Messiah. These are irresistible magnets that will draw people - even ourselves - to wonder and gasp, to cry and laugh, to "Do you remember when ..." and "I can't believe you really ...". Written and reworked over the years, this Torah shouts the truth and compels people to listen. This is the Torah of truth in our midst.

1. - Lowenstein, Mordechai, Hefesh HaGer, Pietrokov, 1906; cited by Drazin and Wagner in Onkelos on the Torah

Further Study: 2 Corinthians 4:6-10; Revelation 21:3-4

Application: What are you writing on your Torah today? How are you blending the colours and the text to show Yeshua to the world?

© Jonathan Allen, 2012



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