Parshas Rosh Hashanah 5772
By Rabbi Zev Wiener
It has been observed that audiences generally remember almost nothing from speeches aside from the opening and closing remarks (if lucky). Accordingly, the Torah’s choice of “Pru Ur’vu” (be fruitful and multiply) as its opening mitzvah, and this week’s “Kisvu Lachem Es HaShira HaZos” (the mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah) as its closing mitzvah, must be anything but arbitrary. The question then emerges: what is so unique about these two mitzvos that warrants such special placement?
Perhaps one could suggest that these two mitzvos share a common theme, focusing on the perpetuation of the Jewish people. Pru U’rvu facilitates the physical perpetuation of the Jewish people: by bringing more Jewish children into the world, one ensures that Jewish bodies will continue to populate the earth. Conversely, writing a Sefer Torah bolsters the spiritual perpetuation of the Jewish people: by “giving birth” to more Sifrei Torah, one ensures the intact transmission of our Mesorah from generation to generation, thereby preserving the soul of the Jewish nation that has sustained us throughout our history. By bookending the remaining 611 mitzvos with these two related mitzvos, the Torah hints that all of its mitzvos are not simply to be performed by individuals during their lifetimes, but also to be passed on to future generations. Indeed, the physical and spiritual continuity of our people are equally essential.
The Gemarah itself (Sanhedrin 19) appears to highlight this connection between spiritual and physical procreation, stating that, “One who teaches his friend’s son Torah is considered to have given birth to him” –that is, passing on Torah to the next generation is no less an act of procreation than physically bringing children into the world. Similarly, it is interesting to note that just as children necessarily come from parents, Halacha dictates that every Sefer Torah must be copied, letter for letter, from a “parent” Sefer Torah – not even a single letter may be written from memory (see Megillah 18, Yoreh Deah 274). Moreover, just as there are parallels between the birth of a child and the creation of a Sefer Torah, the death of a person is explicitly compared to the burning of a Sefer Torah (Moed Kattan 25a), with both situations requiring “keriyah” (tearing of one’s garments) along with the burial of the person or Sefer Torah. Indeed, one can seemingly draw numerous other connections between the physical and spiritual forms of procreation.
Once we acknowledge that the Torah begins and ends with these two pillars to convey the fundamental need to perpetuate the Jewish people – both physically and spiritually -- perhaps we can go even one step further. What both of these mitzvos represent is that, as part of the Jewish nation, our existence in this world does not ultimately end with ourselves. Virtually all other mitzvos in the Torah serve the “right-here, right-now”: shake a Lulav now; eat Matzah now; give Tzedakah now. All such mitzvos are performed for the sake of oneself or members of one’s own generation. When it comes to Peru U’rvu and writing a Sefer Torah, however, the focus is on the benefit of future generations that do not yet exist. By opening and closing with these mitzvos, the Torah is teaching us that the Jew must never perceive his or her place in history in isolation. Every generation constitutes an essential part of a grand tradition which neither starts nor ends with us. While one who chooses to remove him or herself from the “klal” lives and dies in a single, finite lifespan, one who attaches him or herself to the immortal nation taps into something that is eternal, thereby becoming immortal by association.
As an aside, it is important to note that this “immortality by association” is true regardless of whether or not an individual has personally been blessed with children. By attaching oneself to the eternal nation, our Sages teach that all Jewish children become one’s collective descendants, continuing the traditions and values that one has lived by into the next generation, regardless of one’s own personal family situation.
To conclude, this perspective is particularly relevant for us as we face uncertain decisions concerning our people. As Mark Twain (“Concerning the Jews”, Harper’s Magazine, 1899) famously observed, the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all made loud splashes in their day, but quickly vanished from the face of the earth. The Jews, however, continue steadfast in their eternal mission to spread G-d’s light throughout the world. If we, G-d forbid, neglect our national and spiritual identification for exclusively selfish and personal ambitions, living a life exclusively based on the “right here, right now,” we remove ourselves from this everlasting chain, and our life will both begin and end with ourselves. But if we remain true to our ancient values and mission, we gain the unique privilege of becoming an indelible part of this immortal chain that has watched, and will continue to watch, so many enemies rise and fall. Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or anyone else at the United Nations can say and do as they like to try to destroy us, but both they and we know that their ultimately failed attempt will one day be read about in the history books of our collective descendants.