The Poetry of the Yamim Nora’im
BY RABBI ELIEZER KASHTIEL
At the end of Parashat Vayeilech, the Jewish people are commanded: “וְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, And now, write for yourselves this shirah (song or poem)” (Devarim 31:19).
The Gemara derives the obligation to write a sefer Torah from this verse (Sanhedrin 21a). This teaches us that the entire Torah is termed a shirah. The Chatam Sofer points out that, nonetheless, David was criticized for describing the contents of the Torah as zemirot (songs) (Sotah 35a).
Apparently, there is a difference between a shir and a zemer. A zemer is a melody that evokes emotions. The Torah is not a zemer; its purpose is not to produce a casual emotional experience. Torah study is a serious endeavor that requires concentration, effort and toil. Similarly, composing a shir requires skill; a shir follows rules and has structure and depth.
Rav Kook explains this distinction: “Shirah is the supreme expression of the intellect that emerges from broad and deep contemplation of the light of the Supreme G-d and experiencing wonder at His works. Zemer comes as the expression of emotion” (Olat Re’iyah 1, p. 200).
The calculated, exacting rhythm and wording of a poem are designed to impact our consciousness. Like poetry, the Torah can raise us above our simplistic understanding of reality and give us a broader, more meaningful perspective.
This is expressed in the organization of the sedarim (orders) of the Mishnah, reflecting the fact that the Mishnah is much more than mere compendium of technical halachot. Seder Zera’im (seeds) begins with Tractate Berachot, signifying that we must approach nature with an awareness of the berachot (blessings) it contains. The remainder of this Seder deals with sharing one’s blessings with others – the poor, kohanim and levi’im. Seder Zera’im intensifies our sense of gratitude for the kindness that Hashem bestows upon us, exemplified by the fact that a tiny seed planted in the ground can yield abundant produce. With that gratitude comes a mindset oriented toward giving.
Next, Seder Mo’ed (festivals) deals with our relationship with time, teaching us about its meaning and sanctity. The mishnayot teach us not only the halachot of the holidays, but their deeper significance as well. For instance, Tractate Rosh Hashanah does not deal exclusively with the laws of the shofar. Its first chapters discuss kiddush haChodesh (the sanctification of the new month) and the molad (birth) of the new moon. In purely astronomical terms, the moon is in no sense reborn, yet the Sanhedrin invested enormous effort in studying the birth of the moon and establishing the date of Rosh Chodesh. Why is this?
The Jewish months and the birth of the new moon represent the poetry of renewal and rebirth. These phenomena teach us that our world is not static; it contains the potential for rebirth and repentance. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our moonlike capacity for renewal. Indeed, in the blessing recited at kiddush levanah (the sanctification of the new moon), we declare that the Jewish people “are destined to be renewed like it [the moon].” It is therefore significant that Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday that coincides with Rosh Chodesh, as the sages point out (Rosh Hashanah 8a).
One lacking poetical sensitivity will see Rosh Hashanah as nothing more than a technical demarcation of a calendrical change. The natural world, after all, remains unaffected by it. In order to perceive the deeper meaning of Rosh Hashanah, we must relate to it through the prism of shirah that is manifested in the Mishnah.
Similarly, only the final chapter of Tractate Yoma deals with the practical laws pertaining to the fast of Yom Kippur. The other seven chapters discuss the sacrificial service performed by the kohen gadol in the Beit HaMikdash. This reflects the essence of the day as a time to enter our own personal holy of holies and actualize our highest potential.
The practical laws of Yom Kippur can be condensed into a single chapter. However, in order for us to absorb the fundamental message of the day, we must be taught how to emulate the spiritual journey of the kohen gadol.
Like poetry, the spiritual world has rules. It has an order and a language of its own that fosters a comprehensive worldview synthesizing the intellectual and the experiential. This Torah worldview affords us the opportunity to relate to life with a broader and deeper perspective than we otherwise would.
● Translation: R. Dovid Sussman
● Editing and adaption: R. Yitzchak Twersky Academic Language Experts
Siman Labanim is a ground-breaking English translation of Rav Kashtiel’s popular collection of shiurim on the weekly parasha. With this publication, his uplifting writings are accessible to a wider audience. Rav Kashtiel, the Rosh Yeshiva of the post-army program of Bnei David in Eli, is the author of many volumes of parshanut on the Tanach and has long been one of the most prominent Religious Zionist voices in Israel today. If you wish to purchase the sefarim, please contact Maura Ruskin at +972-523826844.