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.
Contains two positive mitzvahs
Preparation for new leadership under Yehoshua
Hakhel public reading of the Torah ceremony every seven years on the first day of the first Succoth holiday after completion of the seven-year shemita cycle
Moshe is told about the events after his death
God’s testimony for the future
Moshe’s Torah scroll is placed with the Ark
Gathering of the Elders to hear the song of Ha’azinu
Repetition of the word hayom (today) may be emphasizing that every day is a new beginning and an opportunity to change for the better
Two Parshiot that are one
The Lubavitcher Rebbe cites Rav Sa’adia Gaon’s opinion that Netzavim-Vayeilech is really one parsha.
In the opening verse of Netzavim Moshe reminds the nation: “Atem Netzavim Hayom”, “You are standing firmly today, all of you together before God your God”. The Rebbe notes that 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 connotes stability, reliability and strength. Vayeilech is about movement, growth and expansion. The Rebbe thinks that the linking of “standing still” Netzavim and “moving” Vayeilech is the eternal reminder that that our growth (upward movement in financial, social, and personal areas) needs to be harmonized with-- and never at the expense of-- our core stable, reliable and strong religious foundation and beliefs.
The Shemita year has just ended. On the first Succoth after the people of Israel will experience the Hakhel ceremony.
"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 Sh'ma Yisroel (Devarim 6:9)
• The entire second section of Sh’ma 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 ..." or “We are grateful 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."
Rabbi B.S, Jacobson surveys some of the ideas related to the Hakhel ceremony:
Flavius Josephus maintains that the purpose of the Mitzvah 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 failure to adhere to the appropriate religious behavior. No one can claim ignorance as a basis for non-observance. The ceremony takes place as the Israelites prepared to journey home to resume their agricultural life.
Aharon Halevy, the thirteenth 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
• Foster a greater appreciation and affection for Torah 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 Shemita -- to the study of and reflection on the Torah. [Ibn Ezra maintains that the ceremony takes place at the beginning of the Shemita 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 (“K’day Sheyishalu Hatinokos”—“so that the children shall ask”). The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds that this is a mitzvah that “arouses and strengthens the inner faith of a Jew—and in this area men, women and children is equal”.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag thinks that the Hakhel ceremony was meant to be a re-living of the Mt. Sinai experience that took place some forty years earlier. Because the vast majority of the Israelites were not present at Sinai, they needed to undergo a Mt. Sinai-like experience as they stood ready to enter the Land of Israel and fulfill the destiny of their parents’ generation. Their parents gathered together at Sinai to hear the words of God and learn to fear Him. Their generation (and future generations) assembled at Hakhel for the same reason. Just as there were korbanot offered at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were busy offering extensive korbanot during the Succoth festival. Rabbi Leibtag finds similar key words and phrases used at both Mt. Sinai and Hakhel. The location of the Mitzvah of Hakhel here, near the end of the Torah, serves as a reminder for all future generations of the awesome experience at Mt. Sinai and its eternal meaning.
Rav Dovid Hoffman observes that the Hakhel ceremony takes place after the crop-less shemita year when lands lay fallow (“vast wasteland”?) just like the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai in the barren Sinai desert.
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.
The Jewish people may have entered the post-shemita year dejected and full of despair with no crops and no money. Perhaps the Hakhel ceremony with its reading of God’s promise of better times ahead helped lift the peoples’ spirit so that they could celebrate the remainder of the holiday as commanded, “you shall rejoice on your holiday”.
Two Mitzvahs in the Parsha
They are the Hakhel assembly and the commandment of writing a Torah scroll. Both were given on the day of Moshe’s passing. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that because the Israelites were about to embark on their entry into the Promised Land without their leader Moshe it became critically important to enable the nation to recreate the experience at Sinai. Rambam writes that the Hakhel ceremony was to be “like the day it was given on Sinai…and he was hearing it from the mouth of the Almighty”. The writing of the Torah scroll was designed to recreate the experience of being given the Torah personally by God “because when a person writes one with his own hand, it is as if he received it from Mt. Sinai”.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains the need for writing a scroll is for us to take ownership of the Torah and to re-learn it and re-live it anew in every generation in the context of its time. Though an ancient document, the Torah speaks to us here and now. But this can only happen if we put ourselves into it and it into ourselves.
The source for this mitzvah is “Now write for yourselves this song”. We are creatures of emotion. To have its impact, the Torah must sing to us; it must speak to our emotions. Rabbi Sacks notes the close association between music and spirituality. Song and singing are critical parts of the Jewish experience. Instead of praying we daven, singing our words heavenward. We don’t just read the Torah. We chant it, with each word having its own cantillation. In studying the Talmud, we chant the words in a particular sing-song manner. There are different cantillations for different Biblical textual readings. Rabbi Sacks quotes Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein (author of the Aruch Hashulchan) who explains that the reason that the Torah is compared to a song is because the most beautiful musical sound is choral, incorporating harmony with many different voices singing different notes. So it is with the Torah with its wide range of commentaries with their differing understandings [“seventy faces”] that together create a soaring polyphony (i.e., a musical composition that uses simultaneous, largely independent, melodies, lines or voices). Moshe’s life ends with urging us to rediscover the Torah every generation “writing our own scroll, adding our own commentaries, reinterpreting the book of the people…singing its song”. [Note: some scholars think that “this song” does not refer to the Torah but to the epic poem-song Ha'azenu, next week’s parsha.]
A Happy Ending
Why is it, asks Rabbi David Fohrman, that rather than letting Moshe die in peace as his death approaches, God tortures him with His prediction of the bad things that will happen after his death. After Moshe had worked so hard to build and mold the nation it appears that all his efforts were in vain. God tells Moshe that in the future, the Israelites will:
• Stray after other indigenous gods
• Desecrate His covenant with them
In response, God will…
• Become enraged
• Abandon them
• Hide His face
• Make them vulnerable to their enemies
• Bring terrible things upon them
Rabbi Fohrman concludes that what is happening here is that God is communicating that so long as he is still alive there is something that Moshe can do to influence the nation. When the nation sins in the future, God will ignore the nation’s attempt at t’shuva because they may not be sincere in their efforts. They may claim that the source of their woes is “because God is not within us” instead of looking within and realizing that it is their abandoning God that triggered His rage.
“Now therefore, compose a song for you and teach it to the children of Israel…” God commands Moshe to compose Haazinu, the epic poem that retells Jewish history and also provides a glimpse into its future. It describes in detail how God the Designer of the universe is also the architect of the nation of Israel. He is our father and our creator and would obviously never pull back from us unless we pulled back first.
Moshe will be remembered as the author of this poem that directly refutes the people’s expected claim. When they read and hear it they will be reminded of Moshe and what he did to urge them to sincerely repent.