Did you have to memorise poetry in school? When I was twelve, my teacher Mr. Stark had each of us memorise a poem of at least 16 lines and recite it in class. In my usual fashion, I left the task to the day before, but the short preparation time forced me to devise a way of doing it that worked for me. It was an early encounter with the idea that I could apply my own will to a task and through it gain self-awareness and self-mastery. The poetry that I learned became special to me in a way that other literature didn’t. The idea that we learn something “off by heart” is not just a phrase but a reality, because our hearts change as we incorporate language and culture not just into our awareness but into our being. Each time we encounter these memorised pieces of literature, we see them anew, with the inward gaze that our current self brings to them. A poem learned “off by heart” at twelve becomes something quite different when we recall it at 20, at 50, at 70.

In the Torah reading for this Shabbat, Moses previews the role of Mr. Stark in Jewish life. The people have been wandering for 40 years. Moses has repeated the terms of the covenant, with its promise of a long and good life in the land if they fulfill God’s commandments and a threat of disaster if they don’t. Moses now performs a poem that delivers his message. In Biblical Hebrew, “poem” and “song” are the same word, and this poem would have been sung, not just recited. We all know that it is hard to memorise a speech, but generally quite easy to memorise a song. And that was the task that Moses set for the Israelites, and for us.

I know that I have outsourced my brain to my phone, as perhaps you have as well. I no longer know phone numbers off by heart, I just know where to find them. I can upgrade my phone, but what Mr. Stark, and Moses, offered was a chance to “upgrade” ourselves. Jews have kept alive the message of Moses for millennia. Habitual attendance at services leads to people finding that they almost effortlessly learn the words and songs of prayer. These words become part of us. They bring ancient words into our lives, as our lives become ennobled through ancient words. We become part of thousands of years of Jewish life, and it becomes part of us. It’s the upgrade we have been waiting for, and it has been here with us all along, no phone needed.