By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week’s Torah Parsha (VAYELECH) is both heartrending, as well as being inspirational. It begins with Moses speaking the following words to the Children of Israel: “Today, I am one hundred and twenty years old; and, the Lord has told me that I will not cross the Jordan with you, to the ‘Promised Land’, which you have inherited” (1). Moses will no longer lead the people. After his death, Joshua will take over the mantle of leadership.
Moses called Joshua and said to him in the presence of all the people: “Be strong and courageous! Never fear, because the Lord your God will neither fail you, nor forsake you” (2).
It is specifically because his life is almost at an end, that Moses takes up the task of writing the Torah, which had until that time, been transmitted orally. The written Torah was given to the kohanim, who would be entrusted with the task of educating the nation.
Shortly after, God formally informs Moses “Behold the days are approaching for you to die. Now write this ‘song’, and teach it to the Children of Israel” (3). According to our sages, the word ‘song’ is a metaphor for ‘Torah’, because we typically chant the words, as opposed to reading them (4).
At this point in Parsha (VAYELECH), a new law is transmitted: the law of ‘hakhel’. ‘SHEMTA’, which occurs every seven years, is the quintessential law of Israel. During this time, the land is left to lie fallow, and all agricultural activity is forbidden. The law of ‘hakhel’ states that at the end of the Sabbatical year, the nation should be gathered together, to listen to the Torah read to them, by the kohanim.
Maimonides explains that the essence of the ‘hakhel’ is experiential: “When the entire nation comes together and hears the Torah read by their leaders, the experience is reminiscent of the Revelation at Sinai” (5)
Moses was considered an unparalleled spiritual leader, teacher, and enforcer of the law. He protected the people from God’s anger when they transgressed; and, he exacted punishment, when it was appropriate. His personal and intense relationship with God could never be reproduced.
Instead of displaying any disappointment or resentment of his destiny, Moses anticipated the spiritual void he would be leaving. He took action on two fronts to stave it off before it began. First, he gave a Torah to each of the people, ensuring that Torah study would continue after his passing. Then he taught them the law of ‘hakhel’, which would enable the spiritual feeling of the Revelation to be replicated.
Moses left this world with unprecedented dignity and honor; and, an inspiration for all Jewish people.
(1) DEUTERONOMY (31:1-2)
(2) DEUTERONOMY (31:7-8)
(3) DEUTERONOMY (31:14, 19)
(4) Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), Spain
(5) Rambam, Mishna Torah (Chapter 6)