Rabbi Chaim Weiner once asked a class of Bar/Bat Mitzvah students what they understood by the words ‘and gave us His Torah’, which occurs in the Torah blessing after the phrase ‘who chose us from all other peoples’. This triggered a lively debate as to the method by which God’s Torah was communicated to us. The major part of the discussion revolved around the concept of ‘Torah min Hashamayim’, and provoked debate about what this concept actually meant.
The phrase which was the original subject of the debate contains one letter which, in itself, should make us think. That letter is a ‘vav’ – the Hebrew word for ‘and’. The letter vav could be translated as ‘by’. In other words, the phrase might mean that God chose us from all other peoples by giving us His Torah. The Midrash explains that the Torah was offered to every other nation but they all refused to accept it.
As well as reciting a blessing before being called to the Torah, we also say one after having been called up. That blessing contains the words ‘And planted eternal life within us’. Here again, the first letter is ‘vav’, possibly meaning that God gave us a true Torah and, by doing so, planted eternal life within us.
The question of why we recite blessings before and after the Torah reading was addressed by the Sefat Emet. He learned from his grandfather that these two blessings are analogous to the blessings we say over food – the blessing before being for the food itself and the blessing after being for the strength which the food gives us. In the case of the Torah, the blessing after the reading would be due to the effect which the Torah reading has had on the person who was called up.
The Torah reading for today begins with the words, ‘And this is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death’. It goes on to describe God’s revelation to His people at Sinai. Just as Moses’ description of the origin of the Torah begins with a blessing – so does our reading of the Torah. However, neither God nor Moses decreed that today should be a festival. Rather, it was Rabbi Hai Gaon who, in the 11th century, added this day to Shemini Atzeret to formalise a second day of the festival in the diaspora.
The Sefat Emet believed that the phrase ‘And planted eternal life within us’ referred to the Oral Torah and that, therefore, even the commentaries of the rabbis are gifts from God. According to Arthur Green, the Torah, together with its continuing interpretation, is a divine gift.
So today, as you listen to the blessings before and after each aliyah, remember that, although the blessing we say relates to the Torah which God gave us, the eternal life that God planted within us makes it the gift that keeps on giving.
Allan Myers is a chartered Accountant. He began teaching at Edgware Masorti Synagogue and Gesher in 1988, and completed a degree at Leo Baeck College in Hebrew and Jewish Studies.