What does Mitzvat Hakhel — the commandment to the Jewish people to gather publicly — tell us about unity, 9/11, and the pandemic? Quite a lot, it turns out.
In the Torah, the placement of two topics in proximity to one another is rarely an accident. The sages in the Gemara expound on this: “Rabbi Yochanan said: adjacent [chapters] – from where [is this learned]? As it is said [Psalms 111]: ‘They stand fast forever and ever, done in truth and uprightedness’” The word used in the pasuk for ‘stand fast’, semukhin, is also the word used for ‘adjacent’. Parshat VaYelekh features an instance of adjacent topics that don’t quite make sense: the death of Moshe, and Mitzvat Hakhel.
The parsha opens with a speech given by Moshe moments before his death. In this dramatic scene, he comforts and reassures the Children of Israel that while they will enter the land of Israel without him, God will protect them from the indigenous peoples: “The Lord thy God, he will go over before thee, and he will destroy these nations from before thee, and thou shalt dispossess them…” Moshe continues to beseech his nation, “Be strong, courageouse, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord your God, He journeys with thee, he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” The Torah thus paints a dramatic picture: Moshe, one hundred and twenty years old, stands before his people moments before his passing, a people who are confused and scared about their future, and reassures them that God will protect them from any danger they may face. The torah even emphasizes how Moshe places his trust in Yehoshua publicly, “in the sight of all of Israel”. This need to reassure the Jewish people is a strong motif and may point to some existential fear caused by loss.
Immediately after Moshe appoints Yehoshua, the story is interrupted by Mitzvat Hakhel: “And Moshe commanded them, saying, at the end of every seven years, in the time of the year of Shemita, in the Feast of Sukkot, when all Israel appears before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing. Gather [Hakhel] the people together, men, women and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates that they may hear, and that they may fear, the Lord your God” This sudden change of tone and topic from Moshe’s death to Mitzvat Hakhel feels unnatural and forced, as the two topics have little in common. Following this mitzvah, the Torah returns to Moshe’s death: “And the Lord said to Moshe, Behold, thy days approach that thou must die”
This Hakhel commandment seems to interrupts the story and disrupt the narrative pacing. Whether this placement was the work of a human editor, or the original divine text, the question remains: what is Mitzvat Hakhel doing here?
Historical perspective helps resolve this question. Instances of public Torah readings are relatively rare. The earliest example is in Kings 2, where, upon finding a Torah scroll, King Josiah institutes reforms and initiates a ceremony where the scroll is publicly read. The scroll is even called “the Book of the Covenant”, alluding to the purpose of the Torah in the original Mitzvat Hakhel to commemorate the pact between God and His people. The ceremony isn’t expressly referred to as “Hakhel,” but at the time, a public reading of the Torah would have been novel, and most likely would have stemmed from the commandment.
In Tractate Sotah, immediately after expounding the laws of Hakhel, the Talmud states: “King Agrippa arose, and received [the Torah scroll], and read [from it while] standing, and the Sages praised him [for this].” Agrippa was a foreign-born king, who suffered from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the Sages. To solve this problem, he called an assembly and read the Torah. Once again, this isn’t referred to as Hakhel, but draws heavy inspiration from the Torah. The ceremony succeeded, and Agrippa gained legitimacy as king, as shown by the Sages’ positive reaction.
And possibly the most famous occurrence of Hakhel is in Ezra, where after a mass exodus from Persian Babylon, in order to inaugurate the new settlement in Judea, Ezra calls a public Torah reading. Once again, this isn’t called Hakhel in the text, but nonetheless draws heavy inspiration from Hakhel. Nevertheless, the purpose of this ceremony is more than familiar: both reaffirming God’s covenant with His people, while at the same time bringing the people together.
All of these ceremonies have something in common: a mass gathering aimed at bringing the people together to affirm their faith while also serving a secondary purpose, whether to announce reforms undertaken by a new king, to help another king gain legitimacy, or to unify a fragmented people. Indeed, throughout history, public Torah readings have been used for civic purposes, to unite and reinvigorate the people, and to affirm the legitimacy of the leader.This ceremony also serves as a model for modern day torah reading, which also brought Jews together throughout the past two years during COVID-19 and crossed traditional Ashkenaz-Sefard lines in street and balcony minyanim around Israel.
Considering this revelation, the placement of Mitzvat Hakhel in the parsha makes sense: its purpose is to provide a worried nation with a concrete solution in the form of ritual, pomp, and circumstance designed to unite the nation and affirm its new leader, Yehoshua. The people rightly feared the departure of Moshe, the only leader they’d ever known and badly needed Moshe’s public affirmation of Yehoshua: what the traumatized Jewish people craved was a unifying ceremony that helps them place trust in their new leader. The placement of this mitzva sends a clear message: in times of doubt, trust in ritual and togetherness.
Over these past 18 months, we’ve seen many institutions wither away. We’ve seen leaders troubled by current events, and almost everything we were accustomed to fell apart. When we needed routine and ritual the most, all many of us had were street minyanim (or balcony) minyanim, many of which bridged the Ashkenaz-Sefard divide. Just like the confused Israelites in the desert, or the Babylonian expats building a new identity, we were saved by Hakhel. In addition, the need for unity at times of national trauma transcends the relationship between God and the Jewish people and extends to all nations, as the many gatherings in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy attest, even 20 years later. May we be blessed with unity, generosity of spirit, and love of Hashem.