We’re going to start with the last mitzvah in the Torah:
What is השירה הזאת? Rashi says it’s the poem האזינו that starts in the next paragraph:
Which is a reasonable understanding, but if that is the case, them Moshe doesn’t listen. He doesn’t go and write האזינו; he writes the entire Torah and only then goes on to read האזינו:
So other commentators understand השירה הזאת to refer to the entire Torah (and חז״ל understand כתבו לכם to refer not to Moshe but to all Jews; there’s a mitzvah to write a ספר תורה).
And the Torah is called שירה, ”poem“ or “song”, because as the Netsiv says in his introduction to the Emek Davar, poetry has levels of meaning and subtleties of language that are not present in prose. And many commentators point out that a song can have many different voices that all sing in harmony, and each voice is necessary for the whole.
Starting from that understanding of השירה הזאת, there’s a second part of the commandment. Not just to write it but למדה את בני ישראל שימה בפיהם:
And the Talmud explains exactly what שימה בפיהם means:
And more specifically:
Now you could read this as an extreme Aggadic “misreading” of the text (שִׂים ← סִימָן?) or, at a deeper level, an understanding of what the text really means. In order to learn Torah (especially תורה שבעל פה) you need סימנים, mnemonics and other memorization and visualization aids. This re-reading is itself a סימן for סימנים. And there are others:
סימנים are critical to learning:
The Torah Temimah has a radical interpretation of many midrashim based on this idea:
Which brings up another example of סימנים. Rosh Hashana is one of my favorite holidays because it encourages puns:
I’m very machmir about my סימנים. I dip the apple in the honey and make a bracha loud and clear. I have dates, fish (usually gummy fish), pomegrantes. I make a soup with squash, leeks, beets and carrots (I searched for fenugreek this year but couldn’t find any). I have a raisin celery, whirled peas, a melon box. I have a can of Coke and raspberry candies (for a year that is “cola tov” and “berry good”). This is my yom tov!
I hesitate to disagree with the Shem MiShmuel, but this seems too close to theurgy. We’ll look at the Ramban shortly, but I would understand the סימנים of Rosh Hashana like the Meiri:
סימנים here serve like the סימנים in learning Torah: they serve to focus our minds. Here it’s not for memorization but to allow us to focus on our prayers.
What was the Ramban that the Shem MiShmuel mentioned?
The Ramban explains why Abraham had to walk through the land, as מעשה אבות סימן לבנים:
I do not think the Ramban is saying that the סימן that the נביא is presenting somehow magically makes the prediction come to pass. The פועל דמיון is not to bind G-d but is for us, to take the lesson of the נביא to heart. מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, literally. It is our סימן that teaches us, so we remember that which ה׳ wants us to hear.
And this need for סימנים, in learning, in prayer, even in prophecy, affects us today. We lack some of the most prevalent physical aspects of Torah:
We don’t have sacrifices, so we use words. The Rambam’s opinion about sacrifices is well known:
His analogy to being told not to pray or fast is important. In the Rambam’s view, the ideal state of service to G-d is in thought alone. All the mitzvot are concessions to human imperfection, since we can’t all be philosophers:
The Rambam is often understood to mean that eventually we will “outgrow” the need for animal sacrifice. I don’t think that’s right; he clearly expects sacrifices to be restored in the days of Mashiach. But these mitzvot of action (both sacrifice and prayer) are only for the imperfect man; if man could be perfect he would not need them at all. Note that he is not denying the requirement of performing the mitzvot; he’s just giving the reason for them. Even a true philosopher has to bring קרבנות!
We start our עמידה with a פסוק from תהילים. It’s worth looking at the context:
Even though what ה׳ wants is לב נשבר ונדכה, we need the tangible, the visible. It’s not a concession but an acknowlegement that we are human, not the Rambam’s perfect philosopher robots. In our learning, in heeding the lessons of our prophets and teachers, in our prayers, we need a סימן. It’s part of who we are, and it is a good sign that we are still human.