The Torah in Parashat Vayeilekh tells that Moshe, before his death, wrote the complete text of the Torah and gave it to the Leviyim who carried the ark, instructing them to store the scroll alongside the ark (or inside the ark; see Rashi, based on Bava Batra 14b). Moshe tells the Leviyim, “Take this Torah scroll and place it to the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, where it will serve for you as testimony” (31:26). The original copy of the Torah was to be carefully preserved, as an eternal testimony.
The Beit Yosef, in discussing the laws of the congregational Torah reading (O.C. 139), cites the Orchot Chayim (by Rav Aharon of Lunel) as pointing to this verse as the source for the practice to hold the handles of the Sefer Torah during the reading. Both the reader, and the one who is called to recite the berakha over the Torah, customarily hold the scroll’s handles. The Orchot Chayim cites the Talmud Yerushalmi as bringing this verse from Parashat Vayeilekh – “Take this Torah scroll” – as the source of this practice. Just as the Leviyim took the Sefer Torah from Moshe, so must we take hold of the Torah scroll.
Interestingly, the Orchot Chayim formulates this custom by stating that one takes hold of the Torah “as if he has now received it from Mount Sinai.” In his view, the practice to hold the Sefer Torah symbolizes our receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai, an event which is reenacted through the congregational Torah reading.
However, in light of the citation of this verse from Parashat Vayeilekh as the source for this custom, we might explain that the custom serves to reenact not our receiving the Torah from Sinai, but rather the Leviyim’s receiving the Torah from Moshe. When we read the Torah, we are to accept upon ourselves the burden of responsibility which Moshe assigned to the Leviyim – the responsibility to preserve the Torah and transmit it intact to the next generation. Each time we study, we are being given that piece of Torah knowledge just as the Leviyim were given the Torah scroll from Moshe – charged with the obligation to preserve it. Learning is not merely an intellectual exercise, but rather part of the historical process of the Torah’s preservation and transmission. And so every time we learn a portion of Torah, we are to approach the experience with a sense of mission and responsibility, committed to doing our part to ensure the successful, accurate transmission of our sacred tradition to future generations.