In Parashat Ki-Tavo, Moshe describes to Benei Yisrael the special ceremony that they were to conduct at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival after entering the Land of Israel. This ceremony consisted of the pronouncement of blessings and curses upon those who fulfill and violate (respectively) certain basic precepts of Torah law. The series of curses, which Moshe here dictates, concludes, “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah” (27:26).
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 7:4), famously cited by the Ramban in his commentary to this verse, ambiguously interprets this curse as referring to the “chazan.” The Ramban explains that the Yerushalmi speaks of the custom known to us as “hagbeha,” lifting the Sefer Torah in the synagogue so the entire congregation sees the sacred writing. The “chazan” mentioned by the Yerushalmi, the Ramban explains, is the person assigned the job to lift the Torah and show it to the congregation.
The practice of hagbeha appears explicitly in Masekhet Sofrim (14:14), and is codified by the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 134:2). The Shulchan Arukh mentions the custom of hagbeha before its presentation of the laws of Torah reading, in accordance with the view that hagbeha is performed before the Torah is read, the practice observed by Sephardic communities. The Rama, however, representing the Ashkenazic tradition, codifies the practice to perform hagbeha after the reading of the Torah.
It emerges according to the Ramban’s understanding of the Yerushalmi’s comment that there is a special curse pronounced upon those who fail to observe this practice of hagbeha, who do not show the Torah to the congregation at the time of the Torah reading. Apparently, at least according to the Ramban, Chazal afforded great importance to this custom, to the point where those who neglect it are deserving of a “curse.” How might we understand the special significance of hagbeha? Why did Chazal deem it so vital to show the congregation the Torah scroll when it is read (either before or after)?
When a specific portion of Torah is studied, the danger arises of viewing all of Torah from the narrow purview of that particular section. Reading one particular portion of the Torah in the synagogue could potentially mislead the congregants into thinking that this portion contains the Torah’s entire message for their lives. Lifting the Torah at the time of the Torah reading is thus vitally important as a way of reminding ourselves that the portion being read constitutes but a small piece of a much larger body of religious teaching. The Torah’s message and its expectations of us cannot be narrowed down and simplified into a single adage, or even into two or three columns of text. The body of law and the set of values incorporated by the Torah are vast and complex, and this might very well be the reason why Chazal instituted the custom of hagbeha and afforded such importance to this practice. We need to put every piece of Torah we learn into its broader perspective, and recognize that it is part of a wide range of values, principles, requirements and concepts, and no specific portion of Torah can possibly represent, on its own, the full scope of what the Torah seeks to teach us.