By Dr Diana Lipton, September 29, 2008

"Take this Sefer Torah and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, your God, and let it remain there as a witness be'cha" Deuteronomy 31:26

In a powerful photograph displayed at the Ellis Island immigration museum in New York City, a young boy stands on the deck of a ship just arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. In his arms is a Sefer Torah, the ultimate guarantor of continuity in uncertain times.

This week's parashah anticipates a period of major change and uncertainty following the death of Moses. Israel will anger God by turning away from Him to worship other gods. In preparation for this, Israel is told to learn the words of a song (Ha'azinu, from next week's parashah), and to place a Sefer Torah next to the Ark.

What is the intended effect of these two actions? Our answer depends on how we translate be'cha in verse 31:26 above. The most popular option is "against you" - song and Torah will be witnesses against Israel when the people go astray in search of other gods.

Closer to the spirit of the Torah-cleaving Ellis Island boy is a translation of be'cha as "among you" or "within you". When Israel strays far from the path, and Moses is no longer present to reconcile them with God, then reconciliation will be achieved instead by the words that Moses wrote on God's instruction. These words, song and Torah, are at once physically present among the people ("beside the Ark"), and within their hearts and minds, as we heard last week in Nitzavim. Song and Torah are the witnesses not for the prosecution, but for Israel's defence. They are God's gift to the Jewish people, securing survival in adversity, and accessible in the heart of every Jew.

Last updated: 11:16am, September 29 2008