August 7, 2018

The song of Torah (Vayelech)

This Shabbat we read Parshat Vayelech which contains the instruction to “write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel” (Devarim 31:19). From this verse our Rabbis learn that we have a duty to write, or take part in writing, a Sefer Torah. However, what is particularly noteworthy is the fact that the Torah is described as a song and according to Rabbi Ya’akov Mecklenburg, author of HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, the use of this term is meant to teach us a profound lesson about how we should relate to Torah. Just as a song must be in perfect harmony, so too our task is to work together while adhering to the rules of the Torah to so that our lives complement one another and create a symphony of divine worship.

Sadly, there are times when we think we are redundant and have little to add to that symphony. However, this is not the case. Some years ago I read a moving story recorded by Rabbi Paysach Krohn in his ‘Perspectives of the Maggid’ which brings this lesson home. Below is a slightly amended version of that story:

‘Rabbi Moshe Plutchok is a teacher in Derech Chaim Yeshivah of Brooklyn. Like many who live in New York City, he and his family spend the summer in the mountains in the Monticello area, and while there he spends many of his afternoons at a beis medrash where he and other Rabbi/educators learn Torah together. One day a number of summers ago Rabbi Plutchok saw a businessman walk into the beis medrash carrying a ArtScroll Gemara. The man sat down and learned with great enthusiasm. When he had a question he would go and ask others, even if they were younger than him, until he got an answer.

Rabbi Plutchok eventually got to talking with the man. The man told him that, unfortunately, he had an advanced stage of liver cancer. Rabbi Plutchok was amazed, because this man came to the Study Hall every day in such an upbeat manner and always learned with incredible diligence. “It’s amazing to me,” Rabbi Plutchok told him. “You have this terrible illness, yet you come here every day and are so upbeat about the learning.”

“Rabbi”, the man said, “I’ll tell you the truth. The ArtScroll Gemara is carrying me. You see, I never went to a yeshivah. Now that the Gemara is in English, I am finally able to understand it. And if I don’t understand something I ask the rabbis here. It makes me feel very special. It enables me to feel I can make a connection to the legacy of Torah and the Jewish people. That’s what’s carrying me.”

One day, near the end of the summer, Rabbi Plutchok walked in and saw this man sitting on the side of the room, looking sad. “Is everything ok?” he asked. “No, rabbi not really,” he replied. “The illness is progressing and I was thinking, What difference does it make if I learn? Who cares? You and the others are all accomplished Torah scholars. Your Talmudic studies make a difference. As for me, I don’t understand everything it says even in English translation. When I ask my questions to the rabbis, I understand most of what they say, but not all. I’m not on your level, rabbi. What’s the difference if I learn? Who cares? ”

Rabbi Plutchok felt terrible for the man, but, incredibly, just the night before he had heard an amazing story on a Jewish radio station. He decided to share it:

A century ago lived a great symphony conductor, an Italian maestro named Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who led concerts all over the world. He was known as an absolute perfectionist and had few peers. Toscanini had a biographer who would interview him periodically over the years as a part of a major book he was writing. One evening, he called Toscanini and told him that he would be in town the next night, and asked if he could come to the house to interview him. Toscanini answered that he could not because he would be doing something special that would require absolute concentration; he could not be interrupted.

“Maestro,” the biographer said, “what are you doing that’s so special?”

“There is a concert being played overseas. I used to be the conductor of that symphony orchestra, but I could not be there this year. So I’m going to listen on a shortwave radio and hear how the other conductor leads the orchestra. I don’t want any interruptions whatsoever.”

“Maestro, it would be my greatest pleasure to watch how you listen to a concert played by an orchestra that you used to lead. I promise I won’t say anything. I’ll sit on the other side of the room, quietly.”

“You promise to be perfectly quiet?” Toscanini asked.


“Then you can come.” The next night, the biographer came and sat quietly while Toscanini listened to the concert, which lasted almost an hour. Finally, when it ended, the biographer remarked, “Wow, wasn’t that magnificent?”

Toscanini said “Not really.”

“Why not?”

“They were supposed to be 120 musicians, including 15 violinists. Only 14 of them played.”

The biographer thought he was joking. How could he know from 6000 miles away, over shortwave radio, that one of the violinists was missing? The biographer had his doubts but didn’t want to say anything and went home.

The next morning, though, he had to find out for himself, so he called the concert hall overseas, asked for the music director and inquired as to how many musicians were supposed to have been playing the night before versus how many had actually shown up. The concert hall director told him that there were supposed to have 120 musicians, including 15 violinists, but only 14 had shown up!

The biographer was amazed. He returned to Toscanini and said, “Sir, I owe you an apology. I thought you were just making it up the other night. But please, tell me, how could you know that one violinist was missing?”

“There is a great difference between you and me”, Toscanini answered.” You’re a part of the audience and to the audience everything sounds wonderful. But I’m the conductor, and the conductor has to know every note of music that has to be played. When I realized that certain notes were not being played, I knew without a doubt that one of the violists was missing.”

Rabbi Plutchok now turned to the man and said, “Maybe to regular people it doesn’t make a difference if you learn, but to the Conductor of the World Symphony – Who knows every note of music that is supposed to be played, Who knows every word of Torah that is supposed to be learned, every line of tefillah that is supposed to be prayed – to Him it makes a difference!” The man embraced Rabbi Plutchok and could not thank him enough for these words of chizuk.

That winter, Rabbi Plutchok happened to meet the son of this man and asked how his father was doing. The son told him that his father has passed away. However, he added, “Ever since my father returned from the bungalow colony, every time he opened his Gemara he would say, “I am performing for the Conductor of the World Symphony!”

That is why we are on this world. We each have our own potential to fulfil. You do not have to be like me and I do not have to be like you. We are all different, but each Jew is part of a great symphony called klal Yisrael, and if we don’t perform the music that we can perform -The Torah that we can learn, the kind deeds that we can do, the tefillah that we can pray – it makes a difference to the Conductor of the World Symphony, because He knows our potential and He notices everything.’

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