Before David laments King Saul and his son Jonathan who died in battle against the Philistines (II Samuel 1:18), he observes that any future victory will hinge on the prowess of the sons of Judah who were expert archers. That expertise was recognized in what David calls “Sefer HaYashar.” The Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 25a) identifies this “book of the just” in three ways.
One suggestions is that this book is none other than the Book of Genesis in which the tribe of Judah is blessed with victory through the skillful use of the bow (Genesis 49:8). Another suggestion is that Sefer HaYashar is an alternative name for the Book of Judges that mentions the specialized training for combat that archery requires (Judges 3:2). And a third suggestion identifies Sefer HaYashar with the Book of Deuteronomy in which Moses refers to the two-handed use of the bow in which Judah excels (Deuteronomy 33:7). The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 1:10) identifies Sefer HaYashar with the Book of Numbers. And, anticipating modern critical scholarship, Rabbi Levi ben Gerson speculates that there may have been a separate and unpreserved book called “Sefer HaYashar” to which David refers.
While any attempt at identification is speculative, the fact that David relates any future success of Israel to archery is central to the understanding of Judaism. Two words that are, arguably, the most important words for Jews to know are “Torah” and “het,” sin. Torah in its broadest definition refers to everything a Jew must know. “Het,” which implies responsibility for our actions, refers to the proper way a Jew ought to behave. And each of these words is derived from archery. The word Torah is derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to shoot an arrow at a target” (cf. I Samuel 20:36). And the word “het” is derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to miss the target.” Thus anyone who adheres to the Torah is “on target” while anyone who violates the Torah is “off target,” a wonderful working definition of sin.
Traditionally, the Book of Deuteronomy is called “Mishneh Torah” because many laws already included in the previous four books are reviewed or restated. They are repeated so that we may be trained to be “on target.” David is correct. Judaism will succeed when we become a people who are experts in archery, that is, consistently “on target.’