Near the end of his life, Moses commanded the people:
“Now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites” (Deut. 31:19).
This verse is the source-text for the obligation of each Jew to write a Torah scroll.1
But why did Moses refer to the Torah as a ’song’? In what way should we relate to the Torah as song?
A young scholar once wrote Rav Kook a letter probing certain philosophical issues, raising difficult questions that troubled him. Rav Kook was delighted to see the young scholar immerse his talents analyzing the philosophical aspects of Torah, unlike most Torah scholars who dedicate themselves solely to the study of Talmud and practical Halachah. Exploring abstract philosophical issues, Rav Kook stressed, is especially important in our times.
Nonetheless, Rav Kook urged the scholar to approach this field only after a prerequisite study of mussar texts.
“You should first acquire expertise in all moralistic tracts that you come across, starting with the easier texts. Great scholars, wise-hearted and exceptionally pious, wrote this literature from the heart. Many subjects of inquiry cannot be fully grasped until one’s emotions have been properly prepared.”
In other words, it is important to precede the analysis of Torah philosophy with the study of simpler texts that clarify the unique holiness of Torah. What is the function of this preparatory study? By studying mussar, we gain a proper appreciation and reverence for the subject at hand. Only after this emotional preparation are we ready to delve into an intellectual analysis of Torah thought.
It is for this reason, Rav Kook explained, the Torah is called a ’song.’ Just as the beauty of song stirs the heart, so too, the special power of mussar literature lies in its ability to awaken our inner sensitivity to the divine nature of Torah. This emotive preparation is essential, as only the pure of heart are successful in penetrating the philosophical foundations of the Torah.
While ethical works do not engage the intellect to a high degree, they nonetheless enable the soul to recognize the Torah’s inner foundations. Of course, one should not be content with reading moralistic literature, but should continue with in-depth, analytical study of the Torah and its worldview.
(Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. I, p. 94)
1 Sanhedrin 21b. However, the Shulchan Aruch quotes the opinion of Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh) that “Nowadays it is a mitzvah to write books of the Pentateuch, Mishnah, Talmud, and their commentaries,” since we no longer study directly from Torah scrolls.