How does one transition? Leave a job, a place, a time? How does one move forward when something is ending and yet there is also a beginning. This is the moment we find ourselves in this week’s parsha of Vayelekh. Moses’s time as a leader of an enslaved people brought to freedom is now coming to an end. Yet the Children of Israel are at the beginning of the next part of this nation’s history — entering the Land of Israel and fulfilling a promise given to Abraham over 400 year before. How does Moses handle this transition? What is his transition plan?
First, he communicates clearly that his time as their leader is over:
Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now 120 years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the LORD has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2).
Second, he reassures the Children of Israel that God will continue to take care of them and bring them into the land that was promised them (verses 3-6). Then Moses clearly passes leadership to his successor Joshua (verses 7-8). Finally, he writes down his words so that they will be remembered in perpetuity carried in the Ark (verse 9).
But what Moses does next is puzzling. In the middle of his goodbye, he commands the people in one final mitzvah — the commandment of Hakhel (verses 10-13):
And Moses instructed them as follows: “Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.
Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.
Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the LORD your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.
Moses instructs the Children of Israel that every seven years at the end of the Shemittah year all men, women, and children should gather on Sukkot and the king of Israel should read part of the Torah for the whole nation in Jerusalem. How is this mitzvah part of Moses’s transition plan? Why is this commanded now and not as part of the mitzvot that are to be done once the Land of Israel is conquered and inhabited?
The commentators point out that the description timing for this mitzvah is peculiar: It is described as being at the end of the seventh year (the Shemittah year), during Sukkot, which actually is at the beginning of the eighth year. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, in his commentary on the Torah, Chomat Anakh, goes in farther and describes this period of time as the “bein ha-shmashot” — the twilight — between the end of the Shemittah year and the beginning of the eighth year (or first year of a new Shemittah cycle).
What can we learn from this bein ha-shmashot, this twilight, between the end of one Shemittah cycle and the start of another? During Shemittah, the land of Israel is not worked; it lies fallow and the Jews are dependent on God that there will be enough food, since they did not grow food. This is similar to our existence in the midbar, wandering in the wilderness, during the 40 year journey from Egypt to Israel. It was a time when the Israelites were totally dependent on God for their basic needs like shelter and food. Yet this dependence on God during a Shemittah year also allows us to reconnect to God. To remind ourselves that ultimately everything comes from God and anything we grow or bring into this world is there because God wanted it there.
So Hakhel comes at the end of a year hopefully spent dedicated to God and right before everyone returns home to plant and grow a land that has not been touched for over a year.
Hakhel happens during the twilight of Shemittah before the work of the next year. It helps us transition from this experience close to God to returning to the mundane, necessary parts of life by reading parts of the Torah that teach us about our relationship to God and mission as a nation.
It makes sense, then, that Moses gives the Children of Israel this mitzvah of transition that takes place during the twilight of Shemittah during the bein ha-shmashot, the twilight of Moses’s leadership. Hakhel recognizes and sanctifies a moment of transition — the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.
It is no accident that this portion is always read on Shabbat Shuvah, the sabbath that falls during the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. These 10 days are our yearly twilight to remind ourselves and feel our dependence on God. We have started the next year, but are still grappling with the effects of the previous year. Or, to put it another way:
Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
We can learn from Moses and the mitzvah of Hakhel to use these times of transition to elevate ourselves. To look back and yet look forward simultaneously in the same moment. To be deliberate in times of change and allow God to help guide us through them.