Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Parashat VaYeilech: A Confluence of Emotions by Yaakov Bieler

September 21, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

The final two Mitzvot of the Tora.

Although Parashat VaYelech is the shortest of all Parashiot,[1] according to Sefer HaChinuch, it  contains the last two Mitzvot Given by God via Moshe to the Jews. Both of these Mitzvot focus on contrasting ways by which the Tora will serve as a source of information and inspiration for the Children of Israel going forward. First, we read about the Commandment known as “Hakhel”,[2] a ritual public reading of the Tora once in seven years.[3] This is followed by a requirement for each individual to write his own Sefer Tora.[4] By means of public reading[5] and private study,[6] a program is created whereby the Commandments and values of the Tora will hopefully be a central component of communal and personal Jewish life. Consequently, not only is the Revelation at Sinai of the Tora described and recalled in a number of Parshiot,[7] but the expectation that the Tora will continue to be referenced and studied is also mandated by the Tora itself.[8]

The specific aims of the Mitzva of Hakhel.

While reading the Tora publicly might be an efficient means by which to share its contents with a large number of people, it would appear that doing so only once in seven years would hardly suffice if the sole intent was to make the Jewish nation knowledgeable. The Tora itself outlines specific goals for this particular ritual that go beyond Tora study per se:

Devarim 31:10-13

And Moses commanded them, saying: ‘At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year following Shmita, in the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before the LORD thy God in the place which He shall Choose, thou shalt read this Law before all Israel in their hearing.  Hakhel (assemble) the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may a) hear, and that they may b) learn, and c) fear the LORD your God,[9] and d) observe to do all the words of this Law; and that their children, who have not known, may a) hear, and c) learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over the Jordan to possess it.’

How can the fear of Heaven be promoted via Hakhel?

“Hearing”, “learning” that lead to “observing” all fall under the cognitive rubric of studying God’s Law; the development of the sensibility of being God-fearing would appear to be something else entirely. Some of the details that are filled in by the Oral Tradition allow for further understanding of how “Hakhel” was intended to engender this sense of awe of the Divine:

Sota 41a

What was the procedure in connection with “Parashat HaMelech” (the portion read by the King)?[10] At the conclusion of the first day of the festival of Tabernacles in the eighth year (of the Sabbatical cycle), i.e., the end of the seventh, they erect a wooden dais in the Temple court upon which he (the King) sits, as it is said, “At the end of every seven years, in the set time, etc.” The synagogue attendant takes a Tora scroll and hands it to the synagogue president, and the synagogue president hands it to the High Priest’s deputy. He hands it to the High Priest who hands it to the King. The King stands and receives it, but reads sitting…

The King reads from the beginning of Devarim up to the Shema (Devarim 1:1-6:4), the Shema, “And it shall come to pass if ye hearken” (Ibid. 11:13-25) , “Thou shalt surely tithe” (Ibid. 14:22 ff.), “When thou hast made and end of tithing” (Ibid. 26:12 ff.), the portion of the king (Ibid. 17:14 ff.), and the blessings and the curses until he finishes all the section (Ibid. 28:1-69)…

The fact that the King himself would read the Tora publicly in the Beit HaMikdash after receiving it ceremonially from various religious leaders, and that the specific portions selected would deal with a) “Kabbalat Ohl Malchut Shamayim” (the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, i.e., the Shema); b) the responsibilities that Jews have to support the Kohanim, Levi’im and the poor within their society (tithing); c) and the rewards and consequences entailed in the entering into the Covenant with God to perform His Commandments, all highly charged topics outlining responsibilities towards God and one’s fellow man were likely intended to inspire awe in the onlookers and listeners. The King publicly reading these passages in the presence of a large gathering of Jews who had come to Yerushalayim for the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot, might have served as a reenactment of the setting of the three covenants entered into over the course of the Jews’ forty years in the desert, at Sinai,[11] the mountains of Grizim and Eival[12] and the Plains of Moav.[13] The ceremony was meant to serve as a testament to how the entire Jewish people, from outstanding dignitaries and religious functionaries to the smallest children were committed in an ongoing fashion to the lifestyle that the Tora’s formulations engendered.

Hakhel was only one component of many that were intended to attempt to develop Yirat HaShem in the Jewish people.

Just as studying once in seven years would hardly suffice if an individual is meant to be a knowledgeable Jew, to try to inspire fear of God once in seven years would probably also prove insufficient to achieve such a lofty aim. One must posit that there was an expectation that Hakhel in combination with a contemplation of aspects of Jewish history in which God Played an overt role and serious Mitzva observance and Tora study[14] would all contribute to generating the desired attitude of fear of Heaven. But as R. Chanina stated in Berachot 33b,[15] it was ultimately up to the individual to either embrace such an attitude or reject it,[16] and despite trying to engineer such attitudes, there were, and continue to be presently, no guarantees that the desired sensibility will be created.

Another emotion that was apparently promoted during the same time of year.

Upon the conclusion of the first day of Sukkot, at the same time and in the same place as Hakhel was scheduled, an annual series of celebrations took place known as Simchat Beit HaShoeiva. The Mishna states that these occasions were manifestations of quintessential joy and happiness.

Mishna Sukka, Chapter 5

Mishna 1. …They [the sages] said, “He who has not witnessed the rejoicings at the water-drawing, has, throughout the whole of his life, witnessed no [real] rejoicing.”

Mishna 2. At the expiration of the first holy day of the festival they descended into the women’s court, where great preparations were made [for the rejoicing]. Four golden candelabras were [placed] there, with four golden basins to each; and four ladders [were put] to each candelabra, [on which ladders stood] four lads from the rising youth of the priesthood, holding jars of oil, containing 120 lugs, with which they replenished [fed] the basins.

Mishna 3. The cast-off breeches and belts of the priests were torn into shreds for wicks, which they lighted. There was not a court in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the lights of the water-drawing.

Mishna 4. Pious and distinguished men danced before the people[17] with lighted flambeaux in their hands, and sang hymns and lauds before them;, and the Levites accompanied them with harps, psalteries, cymbals, and numberless musical instruments. On the fifteen steps which led into the women’s court, corresponding with the fifteen songs of degrees, stood the Levites, with their musical instruments and sang...

Concluding thoughts.

An interesting juxtaposition of contrasting emotions then could be imagined to occur when Hakhel and Simchat Beit HaShoeiva overlap. While it does not happen very often, nevertheless, it is curious to consider how the people participating felt when these two ceremonies with very different emotional valences would take place simultaneously. Would each emotion cancel the other? Would they somehow complement and even enhance one another?  Is such an occurrence to be viewed as an aberration that is clearly atypical and not representative of religious practice that either exclusively focuses upon joy or upon awe, or does it represent some sort of dialectical ideal whereby two very basic feelings that are endemic to the human condition holistically oscillate between one another, despite the rarity of the happening?[18] A curiosity to ponder.


[1] The Parasha consists of a single chapter containing thirty verses.

[2] Literally, “Gather together”, reflecting the public nature of this ritual ceremony.

[3] Devarim 31:10-13.

[4] Sanhedrin 21b interprets Devarim 31:19 “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel” as requiring every Jew to write his own Sefer Tora. Although the term “Shira” (poem/song) would more logically apply to the poem that appears in the next Parasha “Ha’azinu” (Ibid. 32:1-43), commentators have explained that the entire Tora can be viewed as this type of literature due to the density of meaning inherent in every word. See NeTzIV’s introduction to the Tora as well as HaKetav VeHaKabbala on Ibid. 31:19.

[5] Although the Mitzva of Hakhel was to take place once in seven years, public Tora reading was institutionalized on Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat, Yom Tov, Rosh Chodesh and fast days.

[6] It is presumed that the act of writing one’s own Tora would afford a powerful opportunity to familiarize oneself with, and even internalize the contents of the Sefer. However, even if a person did not have the skill to write his own Tora or was unable to afford purchasing one, nevertheless, the Mitzva to study Tora regularly is unambiguously a mainstay of the observant Jewish life. According to Menachot 99b there is a view that reciting the Shema prayer during Shacharit and Ma’ariv, a practice that is relatively wide-spread among knowledgable Jews, fulfills regular, daily, individual Tora learning on the most minimal of levels.

[7] E.g., Shemot 19-20, 24; Devarim 4:10-15; 5:4-30.

[8] The Mitzva of Tora study is associated with Devarim 6:7; 11:19.

[9] The centrality of the fear of God in the Jewish religious experience is best expressed by R. Chanina:

Berachot 33b

R. Hanina further said: Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven, as it says, (Devarim 10:12) “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear the Lord your God…”

If the sole expression of one’s moral free choice is whether or not one fears Heaven, and by extension, is ready to comply with the Commandments, then it is understandable why so many verses dealing with both the story as well as the legal portions of the Tora, mention the value of being God-fearing. On the one hand, the Exodus and its concomitant miracles were orchestrated to bring about fear of God (Shemot 14:31; Devarim 10:21) as was the terrifying experience of the Revelation at Sinai (Shemot. 20:17; 34:10; Devarim 4:10,34; 5:5). On the other, fearing God is a Mitzva in its own right (Ibid. 6:13; 10:20; 13:5) as well as a motivational consideration for a number of specific Commandments (VaYikra 19:14, 30; 25:17, 36, 43; 26:2). In fact, a number of verses suggest that the purpose of observing the Commandments as a whole is in order to impart fear of God to those who comply (Devarim 6:1-2, 24; 8:6; 28:58). An experience paralleling Hakhel which is explained as designed to give rise to Yirat HaShem, the Tora lists the requirement to consume Ma’aser Sheini in Yerushalayim (Ibid. 14:23). The Tora even depicts HaShem as wistfully Remarking, as it were, that He Wished that this particular sensibility will remain as central to the Jewish people: (Ibid. 5:26) “Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My Commandments, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!”

[10] Although no mention of the identity of the reader of the Tora is made in the Devarim itself, the Oral Tradition posited that this ritual would be led by the King and consequently it is known in Rabbinic literature not as “Hakhel” but rather as “Parashat HaMelech”. This begs the question regarding the identity of the portion of the Tora listed in the Mishna to be read during Hakhel called “Parashat HaMelech”. Most interpret this as a reference to the section in Parashat Shoftim listing the three negative (the king is not to possess “too many” horses, “too many” wives and “too much” money) and one positive (he is to write his own Sefer Tora—aside from the obligation incumbent upon all of Israel derived from the verse in Parashat VaYelech listed above) Commandment specific to the King. There is a view in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) that this additional Sefer Tora would be constantly worn by the King as an amulet or a type of Tefillin, and rather than containing the entire contents of the Tora, would only include those passages listed above that were read at the Hakhel ceremony.

[11] Shemot 24:7,8.

[12] Devarim 27:11 ff.

[13] Ibid. 28:69.

[14] In her Gilayon for Parashat VaYelech, 5721, Nechama Leibowitz quotes the following source:

Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2

R. Yaakov in the name of R. Acha says: What is meant by (Yeshayahu 8:17) “And I will await HaShem Who has Hidden His Face from the house of Yaakov and I have hoped in Him”? There is no more difficult moment than the time when HaShem Said to Moshe, (Devarim 31:18) “And I will Hide My Face on that day”. “And I have hoped in Him”—that he Said on Sinai (Ibid. 31:21) “Because it (the Tora) will not be forgotten from the mouths of his offspring.”

It would appear that remembering/studying the Tora will have to serve as a substitute for a direct experience of HaShem Himself. Just as being exposed directly to God would most probably engender awe of Him, a parallel experience is projected for engagement with the Tora and its practices. However, it is obvious that this is more indirect and hence probably less inevitable in terms of contributing to a sense of fear of HaShem.

[15] See fn. 9.

[16] Devarim 29:17-20 describes an individual or group who despite sharing in the experiences and culture of the Jewish people, resist becoming observant and believers. The Tora promises that such individuals will be turned into cautionary tales for others:

Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart–that the watered be swept away with the dry’; the LORD will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and His jealousy shall be Kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD shall Blot out his name from under heaven; and the LORD shall Separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law.

[17] RaMBaM expands upon the idea that most people were bystanders, much in the way that most people would passively listen to the king read from the Tora during Hakhel:

Mishna Tora, Hilchot Lulav Chapter 8 Halacha 14

It is a great mitzvah to maximize this celebration. The common people and anyone who desired would not perform [in these celebrations]; only the greatest of Israel’s wise men: the Rashei Yeshivot, the members of the high court, the pious, the elders, and the men of stature. They were those who would dance, clap their hands, sing, and rejoice in the Temple on the days of the festival of Sukkot. However, the entire people – the men and the women – would come to see and hear.

[18] A contemporary example of two seemingly mutually exclusive emotions coming together is Shmini Atzeret in Israel. Both Yizkor as well as Simchat Tora are commemorated on the same day, making for some emotional confusion. Some find Yom HaAtzamaut immediately following Yom HaZikaron as emotionally challenging as a result of the extreme feelings that are associated with each holiday, but at least they occur on separate days. Having both on the same day is potentially much more difficult.

Print This Post Print This Post