A VERY PUBLIC DISPLAY

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT NITZVAIM - VAYELEKH

 

 

A VERY PUBLIC DISPLAY

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

The history lesson has been delivered, the commandments reviewed, and the covenant renewed.  Now, at the end of his life, Moshe must take leave of the people for one last time.  He must ascend the mountain to gaze upon the land that he will never enter.  The Jewish People are on their way to cross the Yarden to begin life as a self-governing nation under the sovereignty of God.

 

Before his valedictory address, however, Moshe gives the people two final commandments – to read the Torah in public once every seven years and to perpetuate the Torah’s text. Why does Moshe teach these commandments specifically here, in his parting words? Should they not have been included among the many mitzvot listed earlier in chapters 12-26?  Technically, one could argue that the answer emerges from the verses themselves – these final two commandments both refer to the reading and writing of the Torah, which has just been handed over to the priests and elders (v. 9).  Moshe then precedes to command them concerning "THIS Torah," the Torah that has just been handed over to them. Since the completion of the writing of the Torah could not be achieved until Moshe's last day, as he had to include the preceding addresses, only now could he command that "this Torah" be read every seven years.

 

Let us look beyond the technical issue of having to wait for the Torah’s completion before issuing these commands and study instead the underlying meanings of both of these commandments.  Both involve the preservation, in oral and written form, of the Torah text.  To an extant, these two commandments are “meta”-commandments, which give a framework and purpose to the other mitzvot.

 

Renewal of the Covenant

 

In this week’s study, we will investigate the mitzva of Hakhel, which is described in our parasha (31:10-13).  The details of this mitzva are laid out by the Rambam in Hilkhot Chagiga (ch. 3).

 

At the end of the first day of the festival of Sukkot, at the beginning of the eighth year [the seventh year having just ended], they make him [the king] a wooden podium in the courtyard [of the Temple] and he sits upon it… The chanter of the Great Court takes a sefer Torah and gives it to the head of the Court, and the head of the Court gives it to the deputy Kohen Gadol, and the deputy Kohen Gadol gives it to the Kohen Gadol, and the Kohen Gadol gives it to the king, and the king stands and receives it and reads….

 

The king is to gather the people together in the Temple courtyard and read to them from the Torah, specifically selections from Sefer Devarim. The goal is simple - to remind the people of their history, the laws they are called upon to keep, and the principles they must live by. It is to be a ceremony of national rededication - a renewal of their inherited and chosen destiny and a reminder of the duties they owe to their ancestors, their descendants not yet born and, primarily, to God Himself.

 

How this command was carried out is unclear.  From the Tanakh, we see that it was performed by the nation’s leaders at critical junctures in Jewish history. Yehoshua did so at the end of his life (Yehoshua 24), and Yoshiyahu did so when the Torah was rediscovered during a restoration of the Beit Ha-Mikdash:

 

Then the king called together all the elders of Yehuda and Yerushalayim. He went up to the Temple of Hashem with the men of Yehuda, the people of Yerushalayim, the priests and the prophets - all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the Temple of Hashem. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of Hashem - to follow Hashem and keep His commands, regulations, and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. (Melakhim II 23: 1-3)

 

For the generation of the exiles that returned from Babylon to the hardships of Eretz Yisrael, Ezra did the same, ushering in another renewal of the covenant:

 

So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women, and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (Nechemia 8: 2-3)

 

The Message of Hakhel

 

Let us analyze the verses of Hakhel to see what lessons they contain.

 

Seforno considers the significance of the ceremonial handing over of the Torah from one functionary to another, as described in the mishna above. He finds a textual source for this ceremony in verse 9, which precedes the mitzva of Hakhel:

 

"And Moshe inscribed this Torah and gave it over to the kohanim, the children of Levi" – from whose hands the king receives it to read, as we learn [in the mishna], "The deputy gives it to the Kohen Gadol, and the Kohen Gadol to the king."

"And to all the elders of Israel" – from whose hands the kohanim receive the Torah at Hakhel, as we learn, "The chanter of the Great Court gives it to the head of the Court, and the head of the Court to the deputy."

 

In other words, Moshe’s giving over of the written Torah to the kohanim and the elders is itself part of Hakhel. Those who receive the Torah for safekeeping – the kohanim and elders – are then commanded by Moshe ("and Moshe commanded THEM") to transmit the Torah in their trust to the person who is destined to replace Moshe as leader of the nation, namely, the king. Indeed, the special status of the king as Moshe's successor during the mitzva of Hakhel is almost explicit in the words of the Rambam: "The king is the agent who gives voice to God's words” – in other words, the replacement for Moshe.    

 

What was the purpose of the mitzva?  At first glance, the question seems redundant.  The Torah itself explains:

 

…in order that they may hear and that they may learn to fear Hashem your God, and they will observe to perform all the words of this Torah.  And their children who have not known – they will hear and will learn to fear Hashem your God. (v. 12-13)

 

As stated in the Sefer Ha-chinukh, the purpose of the gathering was to ensure the central role of the Torah among the Jewish People:

 

The talk of all the nation – men, women and children – would then be: "Why have we assembled for this large gathering?" And the answer would be: "To hear the words of the Torah — our essence, glory and pride!" This would lead them to praise the Torah and speak of its glorious worth and implant within their hearts a desire and motivation to study and know God. Thus, they will merit the ultimate good, and God will rejoice in His creations... (Sefer Ha-chinukh, mitzva 612)

 

However, as the text alludes to through the emphasis on the bringing of the children even though they are too young and immature to appreciate the Torah on an intellectual level, the mitzva of Hakhel accomplishes another, possibly even more important, purpose. The Torah, as important as it is, is not the end-all of Judaism.  It represents an even greater truth – a truth evident in the unique manner in which it was given.  The Torah represents the special relationship that exists between Hashem and the Jewish People, as evidenced by the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  This is stated clearly by the Rambam when he discusses this mitzva (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:5-6):

 

The reading and the blessings are intoned in the holy tongue, as it is written, "And you shall read THIS Torah" – in its original language.  Even though there may be natives of other lands and strangers who are not familiar with the holy tongue, they must ready their hearts and listen with their ears, to hear with fear and awe and tremulous joy, LIKE THE DAY WHEN THE TORAH WAS GIVEN AT SINAI.  Even great sages, who know the entire Torah, are [nevertheless] obligated to listen with great and intent concentration.  One who is not able to hear – he concentrates inwardly on this reading, which the Torah establishes solely for strengthening the true faith.  HE SHOULD REGARD HIMSELF AS THOUGH HE HAS JUST NOW BEEN COMMANDED, AND FROM THE MOUTH OF GOD HIMSELF, FOR THE KING IS AN AGENT TO MAKE GOD'S WORDS HEARD.

 

For the Rambam, the commandment of Hakhel is nothing less than a reenactment of the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  Twice he states: "They must ready their hearts and listen with their ears… LIKE THE DAY WHEN THE TORAH WAS GIVEN AT SINAI," and "he should regard himself as though he has just now been commanded, and from the mouth of God Himself, for the king is an agent to make God's words heard." Just like Moshe, the king declares Hashem's words to the people.  As such, the purpose of Hakhel is not for intellectual enjoyment, but to attempt to live the fundamental truths of being Jewish on the most experiential level. As such, the experience does not necessarily require an understanding of the words being read by the king, but rather a psychological preparation and internalization of the great significance of the occasion itself.  Like the Ramban’s understanding of the Mishkan as a mobile Har Sinai that would accompany the people throughout their travels (see his commentary to Vayikra 1:1), the Har Sinai experience was to be re-enacted at the beginning of every Shemitta cycle, after the people had enjoyed the bounties of the sabbatical crops for an entire year,