The Thirteenth Scroll
Based on Parasha V’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) arrives at the final curtain call of his life. The last act undertaken by this extraordinary historical figure is to write thirteen Torah scrolls. Twelve are given to the tribes of Israel, one for each tribe, as a memory tool and as a source of spiritual protection.
But Moshe directs the thirteenth scroll to be stored beside the aron habris, the ark of the covenant, a beautiful, portable box storing the greatest mystical treasures of Jewish history. The ark of the covenant would travel through Jewish history, first as the centerpiece of the Mishkan, the tabernacle that would be constructed, dismantled and reconstructed at various locations for centuries, then at the hearts of the first and second Beis HaMikdash, the glorious temple in Jerusalem.
Both in the travelling Mishkan and then in the permanent Beis HaMikdash, the ark would be stored in an inner sanctum called the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies. This small, sacred space – a room of minimal dimensions and infinite spirituality – would be so revered that only a single human being would be permitted to enter it, and even then only once a year. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would undergo extensive preparation over the course of weeks before finally entering the Kodesh HaKodashim before the watchful eyes of the entire Jewish nation on Yom Kippur. No one dared to defile this most awesome holy place. It was the physical epicenter of the spiritual universe.
Which makes Moshe’s explanation for his placement of the thirteenth scroll rather perplexing: “Take this Torah scroll and place it alongside the ark of covenant of Hashem, your God, and it will be there as a witness.” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 31:26)
A witness is somebody who informs or reminds us of something that we need to know. Moshe says that his thirteenth Torah scroll will bear witness to the authenticity of the Torah for all future generations. But how will the scroll bear witness if almost nobody ever sees it? The thirteenth scroll, placed alongside the ark of the covenant in the Kodesh HaKodashim, was never removed for public display or paraded around the crowds that gathered in the Beis HaMikdash’s public areas.
Wouldn’t the other twelve Torah scrolls serve as far more useful “witnesses” than this rarified thirteenth scroll? Anybody could see them, anybody could read them, and anybody could verify their authenticity. In that light, what use did Moshe’s hidden treasure have at all?
It turns out that Moshe Rabbeinu was cleverer than we realize. The greatest of all prophets knew very well that Torah, the only book ever written by God Himself, was the most unique document in human history. It didn’t take prophecy to realize that something this extraordinary would draw plenty of attention – both positive and negative attention.
Moshe foresaw a virile hatred that would thrum like dark electricity throughout human history. Some Jews and non-Jews alike would do almost anything to discredit the divine source, value, and relevance of God’s book. They would stoop to any low.
Which is why, by divine command, Moshe took one of his own hand-crafted Torah scrolls and lay it beside the ark of the covenant in the Kodesh HaKodashim. Nobody could reach it there. It would never be amended, it would not change hands, and it would not be tampered with. This powerful thirteenth scroll would be the hallmark of Torah’s divine authenticity.
As Moshe promised, the thirteenth scroll would indeed serve as a witness for future generations that the Torah brought down from Sinai had not changed.
This theme has come to life in our generation. Discoveries of ancient Torah texts have found them to be virtually identical to Torah scrolls written today. And where is the mysterious thirteenth scroll? Some authorities say that King Yoshiyahu (Josiah) hid the ark of the covenant containing the scroll beneath the Temple Mount. Others believe the ark of the covenant is hidden in the Vatican. Groups throughout Africa and Europe claim to have it in their possession. It may be hidden elsewhere.
One way or the other, though, when the moment comes to unfurl that ancient, sacred Torah scroll, nothing will attest more powerfully that the Torah received at Sinai has never changed.