Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Moshe’s fourth and final speech…eternal covenant with God…ingathering of exiles…accessibility of the Torah and Tshuva to all…choosing Life and Good
Two Parshiot that are one
The Lubavitch Rebbi cites Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s opinion that Netzavim-Vayeilech is one Parsha.
In the opening verse Moshe reminds the people: “Atem Netzavim Hayom”, “You are standing firmly today, all of you together before God your God”. The Lubavitch Rebbi notes the use of the more forceful word Netzavim instead of omdem (also meaning standing) emphasizes that we are to stand firm and unshakable in our belief. We stand fully conscious of the presence of God, bound together as one nation—“Ish Echad B’Layv Echad”.
Parshat Vayeilech begins with “Moshe went and spoke the following words to all Israel.”
The word Netzavim suggests stability, reliability and strength. Vayeilech is about movement, growth and expansion. The Rebbi concludes that the linking of “standing still” and “moving” is the eternal reminder that that our growth (financial, social, personal) needs to be steeped in-- and never at the expense of-- our core, religious foundation and beliefs.
A seven-time recurrence of the verb “return”, in Chapter 30 points us to the key underlying theme of this section—Tshuva. The Hebrew word, whose root means return is a transformational process that leads to regeneration and rebirth. Like the snake that sheds its skin and gains almost a new identity, the person who does Tshuva sheds his old self and is spared from the punishment that was to be inflicted on the old self that no longer exists.
If we as a nation grasp the lesson of history and decide to return to God in word and deed, He will turn to us, gather us, ”circumcise our stuffed up hearts” and help each of us transform ourselves into a “new,” better person. Note the linkage with the Bris, circumcision, which was performed by Avraham Avenu on his son Isaac, at which time God promised His everlasting Covenant for creation of a Jewish people with our own land.
God promises us that He will cut away (circumcise) the layers of rationalization, cynicism, apathy and laziness that block us from experiencing the essential goodness that exists deep inside each of us. Excision of this negativity permits us to tap into our deep emotions of devotion/faith/ethical behavior/love.
In beautiful, poetic language the Torah describes that no matter how far away we are, literally and emotionally, we have the ability to return to God (i.e., do Tshuva). The initial stages of the Tshuva process are, in the words of Rav Kook (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) purifying and refining as we move first toward God, then to the higher stage of onto God, being one with Him. This two stage process is seen in the subtlety of the text where initially the Torah’s words are “…And you return upto the Lord your God…” then later the terminology is”…If/when you return unto the Lord your God.”
Tshuva consists of considering one’s past behavior; expressing remorse for one’s actions and verbalizing his commitment to not behave or speak that way again. The ultimate test is how one behaves when confronted with a repeat of a situation.
The “three Rs” of the Tshuva process are: Remembering; Remorse ; and Regenerating.
The predominant themes of the month of Elul are Tshuva and God’s Love. The Lubavitch Rebbi , sees the words “to love God your God with all your heart” as a reflection His deep-rooted love for the Jewish people which we are called upon to reciprocate. It is good to feel love and be loved. These positive feelings build our confidence and prepare us to tackle the difficult, painful introspection that is the start of the Tshuva process of reconciling with both God and Man.
"At the end of each seven years, at a fixed time on the festival of SUKOT, after the year of release, when all Israel comes to present themselves before God, your Lord, in the place that He will choose, you must read (from) this Torah before all Israel, so that they will be able to hear it.
"You must gather together (Hakhel) the people, the men, women, children and proselytes from your settlements, and let them hear it. They will thus learn to be in awe of God, your Lord, carefully keeping all the words of this Torah. Their children, who do not know, will listen and learn to be in awe of God, your Lord, as long as you live in the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy."
Rambam describes the Hakhel ceremony as follows:
"How is the public reading conducted? Clarion calls are sounded throughout Jerusalem to assemble the people. A large wooden dais is brought and set up at the centre of the Women's Court in the Sanctuary. The king sits upon this dais so that all may hear his reading. All pilgrims will stand around him. The overseer of the government will hand the Torah over to the presiding officer, who passes it on to the deputy high priest. This one will turn it over to the high priest, who will tender it to the king. This gesture expresses obeisance to the king in front of the multitude. Now the king rises and accepts the Torah standing. He opens the scroll, looks for the beginning of (the Book of) Devarim, then pronounces the customary benediction prior to public reading from the Torah. Then he will read out the prescribed selections, concluding with seven special benedictions."
The prescribed sections to be read are:
• From the beginning of Devarim until the end of Shma Yisroel (Devarim 6:9)
• The entire second section of Shma Yisroel beginning with "V’haya Im shamoa”
• From the beginning of "Asayr T’asyr” through the entire section on the blessings and curses in Parshat Ki Savo.
In the absence of a King in Israel, the public reading is to be conducted by the highest ranking national official like the High Priest or the President of the Sanhedrin (judiciary). The special concluding benedictions are:
• "Ata B’chartanu" ("You chose us from all the nations ...")
• "Modim Anachnu Lach" ("We bow to You ...")
• "R’Tzay" ("Accept favorably ...")
• A prayer for the continued existence of the Temple concluding with "... who resides in Zion"
• A prayer for the continuation of the Kingship in Israel concluding with "... who chooses Israel"
• A blessing that the priests' service should be found favorable
• A private prayer that concludes with "... save your nation Israel that needs salvation. Blessed art Thou, Hashem, who listens to prayers."
Flavius Josephus maintains that the purpose of the Mitzva is to provide an impressive public admonition for the entire nation. The public recitation of the Torah and its laws educates people about the consequences of their religious behavior. No one can claim ignorance as a basis for non-observance. The ceremony takes place at the first Sukkoth after the Shmita year ended, as the Jews prepared to journey home to resume their agricultural life.
Aharon Halevy, the 13th century author of Sefer Hachinuch sees in this ceremony a national reunion to hear Torah words, create a greater national awareness of the Torah laws and foster a greater appreciation and affection for its values as is stated in the text "... that they may hear and fear... and observe."
Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) thinks that the pomp and circumstance is meant to inspire every individual to devote his leisure time-- both the weekly Shabbat day and the septennial Shabbat year of Shmita -- to the study of and reflection on the Torah. [Ibn Ezra maintains that the ceremony takes place at the beginning of the Shmita year.]
Even young children are obligated to attend. According to the Talmud, men assemble to learn, the women assemble to hear while the little ones come "in the interest of those who bring them"(i.e., an additional Mitzvah for the parents).
Ramban (1194-1270) thinks the obligation is for children who are old enough to be impressed by the awesome experience and to study the Torah. This experience will prompt questions—the key to their education (Kday Sheyishalu Hatinokos).
Hakhel is the earliest reference to the commandment of public Torah reading. Tradition attributes to Moshe the reading on Shabbat, festivals and Rosh Chodesh. Ezra the Scribe extended public reading to Shabbat afternoons and to Monday and Thursday mornings so that no more than two full days can pass without people hearing the words of the Torah.
In 1945, the Yeshurun Central Synagogue in Yerushalayim conducted the first modern Hakhel ceremony, reviving a custom that lay dormant for nearly 2000 years. Hakhel since has become an established tradition for Chief Rabbis and civic leaders in the State of Israel. On Tishrei 18, 5769/October 17, 2008 the Hakhel ceremony was performed on the Temple Mount and in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Jonathan Muskat notes that after a year of inspiring devotion to Torah learning and spiritual matters (since no farming was permitted during Shmita) the Jewish people would be coming off this religious high as the Sukkoth holiday drew to a close and the people would be returning to their life of hard work. To ease the pain, and help the transition, the Torah offers one last, lasting, sweet Hakhel experience, not unlike the spices we smell at Havdala to ease the pain of our imminent resumption of the work week, after a relaxing, spiritual uplifting Shabbat experience.
Saw you at Sinai
According to a Midrash, every Jewish soul of every generation was at the momentous, nation-creating Mt. Sinai experience. Each of us has a shared destiny. Every generation has the potential to experience that moment through Mitzvahs. For example, the Ramban notes that the Mishkan that travelled with the Israelites during their desert resembled a “traveling Mt. Sinai”: being encamped around the Mishkan; observing the fire and smoke of the offerings; and being taught Torah by Moshe-- as was done at Mt. Sinai.
The new generation of Israelites about to enter the Holy Land was not present at Mt. Sinai. But it was their--and our--responsibility to fulfill the destiny planned for their parents’ generation of…
• Living by the Torah and its ethics
• Creating a personal relationship with God
• Becoming a nation that properly represents God and His ethics to the nations of the world
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that Hakhel sets the tone for us to capture these emotions. On Sukkoth every individual is obligated to offer various korbanot just as the Israelites offered korbanot at Mt. Sinai. Citing textual and thematic parallels that link Hakhel to Mt. Sinai, he concludes that the Hakhel ceremony is one way of re-creating and re-living the Mt. Sinai experience.
“Secret things belong to God…but regarding revealed things it is for us and our children to forever do all the provisions of this [Torah] teaching”
“Even when your outcasts are dispersed to the ends of the world, [eventually] God will gather you…and bring you to the land which your fathers occupied”
“…surely this instruction…is not too baffling for you nor is it beyond reach…it is not in the heaven…neither is it beyond the sea…no, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart to observe it”
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse .Choose life!”