I have often been puzzled by the transmission of the Torah Shebeal Peh (the unwritten Torah) from Almighty G-d to the Jewish people. According to our tradition, Moses communicated to the Jews the written Torah (the Torah Shebichtav) and, in addition, an unwritten portion that had to be conveyed verbally from parent to child. As time went by, this unwritten law – which we refer to as the Mishna and Talmud – had to be written down lest it would be forgotten. Even after it was penned, we still refer to it as the “Unwritten law.”
Why couldn’t G-d make it easier for everyone and include footnotes in the Torah so that the explanation could be right in front of us, with no need for the unwritten law?
As an example, nowhere in the Torah does it mention the details or description on how tefillin or tzizit are made or should appear. It is only through our mesorah, the oral law passed from generation to generation, that we know the answer.
Though not convinced entirely by my answer, I often told my students that the reason was to put the burden and responsibility to transmit the mesorah on the parents of each generation. Had we received the entire Torah in written form, then parents would not feel the urgency and the obligation to pass on our Torah to the next generation. They would simply instruct their children to seek out the text and study it for themselves. Once they were given the charge to orally pass on these laws, they had to become active participants in the process.
A second and perhaps more profound reason is based on the appearance of the word “kol” (sound) throughout our Torah, and its implications upon our people.
Interestingly, Plato and other philosophers questioned and indeed attacked the written word as inadequate. They hypothesized that when one reads something from a written text they might misinterpret the meaning and intent of the author. Conversely, when giving over a thought verbally, one has the ability to create a dialogue with the presenter and elucidate those areas of concerns and questions.
Throughout the Torah and the prophets there are references to this special kol that was transmitted, and each time it appears, one can feel the sensitivities and anguish – the majesty and omnipotence that is represented by this word.
A few examples; When Almighty G-d first appeared to Adam after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam, with terrible fright and trepidation, said to G-d, “I heard your kol in the garden, and I was frightened, for I am naked and so I hid” (Genesis 3:10). In the voice of Adam one can feel the terror and the panic of the kol of Almighty G-d.
When Cain killed Abel, G-d said the kol of the blood of your brother are calling out to me from the earth” (Genesis 4:10). One can only imagine this sound, a sound of foreboding and sadness, of Abel’s wailing.
When Yitzchak bestowed his blessings on Jacob and not on Esau, he uttered the words “the kol is the kol of Yaakov but the hands are those of Esau” (Genesis 27:23). Jacob’s kol was soothing and sensitive, caring and compassionate; not so the harsh kol of Esau his brother.
Finally, after the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments, the Torah states “And the entire nation saw the kolot (Exodus 20:17). They felt through this sound the majesty and power and the omnipotence of Almighty G-d.
The mention of kol is referenced in dozens of places in the Torah, and each time it appears, one is filled with wonder and amazement in its powerful and profound implication and meaning. One thing is for sure; this kol is a key element that sustained the Jewish people throughout the ages and has enabled us to survive the travails of our history and glorify in the triumphs of our victories.
One is reminded of the “Kol demama dakah” – the still voice of our prayers ascending to heaven on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the words of King David (Psalms 19): “There is no speech or words that their kol goes unheard.”
G-d endowed us with the unwritten Torah, because he knew that this kol – our kol – was vitally important for our survival. Our Rabbis emphasize that when one is studying Torah it is not sufficient to read only with one’s eyes; there must also be a kol, the same kol that was heard repeatedly in our history, the same kol that parents have sung for generations to their children in time of pain and times of promise.
Every day we must sensitize ourselves to continue to say and hear this kol and commit ourselves to G-d’s calling, that this same kol that has strengthened us during our centuries of dispersion will continue to support our people in hastening the coming of our Messiah in our days.