We have entered into an eventful year. (Hopefully for the good!). This year is not just 5782, it is also the Shmita year (the Sabbatical year) with its call for agricultural rest. In this week’s parasha, we read of another mitzvah also associated with the Shmita year, the mitzvah of Hakhel, which calls for the public reading of selections from the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) by the king during Sukkot. (There is a debate over whether this is done during the Shmita year or the following year. The rabbinic consensus is that it is carried out the Sukkot after the Shmita year.) Since 1967, this event has been renewed and is carried out at the Kotel with the President of Israel reading the Torah (or the chief rabbi if the president is not capable).
The Torah describes this event in these words: “And Moshe charged them, saying, ‘At the end of seven years, in the set season of the sabbatical year at the Festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel comes to appear before the presence of the Lord your God in the place that He chooses, you shall read this teaching before all of Israel, in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones and your sojourner who is within your gates, so that they may hear and so that they may learn, and they will fear the Lord your God and keep to do all of the words of this teaching.” (Deut. 31:10-12)
The Mishnah describes this event as one of great fanfare and pageantry: “After the close of the first festival of Sukkot, in the eighth year, after the going forth of the seventh year, they used to prepare for him (the king) in the Temple Court a wooden platform on which he sat… The hazan (caretaker) of the synagogue used to take a Torah scroll and give it to the head of the synagogue and the head of the synagogue would give it to second [to the high priest] who would give it to the high priest who would give it to the king and the king received it standing, but read it sitting…” (Adapted from Mishnah Sotah 6:8)
This auspicious occasion was a rare times where the Torah made explicit the rationale for a ceremony: “that they may learn and that they will fear the Lord your God.” Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezofsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, found it striking that the purpose of this ceremony was to inculcate “fear” rather than love, since, to his mind, love represents a higher means of relating to God. He explains that this verse represents a clear understanding of the Jewish psychological of how people operate. God, according to the sages, created people with both inclinations to do good and to do evil, enabling them to have the ability to choose between them. It is “fear”, according to Berezofsky, which allows a person to tame the evil inclination and to utilize it in the service to God. (See Netivot Shalom Devarim Parshat Vayelech)
This is especially relevant in this season of teshuva (repentance) when we focus on disciplining ours to better who we are. The religious life is ultimately about building a loving relationship with God. Still, as with all good things in life, a relationship of love also depends on discipline and at the most basic level “fear of God” helps us in the process of achieving it.