Vayelech: The Experience of a Lifetime

After 120 years Moses, the great lawgiver, has reached his final day on earth and, as a kind of last will and testament, presents the people with the final two commands of the Torah – one private: that each person write his own Torah; and one public: that the nation gather every seven years, at the end of the sabbatical year during the holiday of Sukkot, for a special Torah reading in Jerusalem by the king.  Both commandments are informed by a desire to perpetuate the divine law that Moses has spent his life bringing to the people.  However, while having each person maintain his own personal copy of the Torah clearly serves this this interest, the public septennial reading, known as “Hakhel”, demands explication.

To understand how Hakhel perpetuates the law just as much, if not more, than a personal copy of the text, let us analyze the event by asking a number of questions: Why a solitary national assembly as opposed to multiple local ones?  Why the king and not a religious dignitary – prophet or priest?  Why Sukkot? Why every seven years? Why Jerusalem? Why at the end of the sabbatical year?

Maimonides, in his discussion of the laws of the Hakhel, writes that one must listen to the reading “like the day on which it was given at Sinai” and view oneself as if “hearing it from the mouth of the Almighty – for the king is the agent to make God’s word heard.”  From these descriptions it is understood that Hakhel is to be a recreation of the giving of the Torah, the king serving as a representative of the King of kings.

Maimonides goes on to explain that, beyond the men, women and children that Moses commanded to be present, three groups must also participate:

  • people who don’t understand Hebrew – though the reading is in Hebrew;
  • scholars – though well-versed with the text, must attend with redoubled attention;
  • people prevented from attending – though without text, must concentrate their hearts and imagine themselves as part of the event.

The singling out of these people who do not gain from the reading per se, explains Rabbi Elchanan Samet, “leads to one fundamental conclusion: participation in the Hakhel ceremony was not intended to increase knowledge but rather to deepen experience.”  And it is experience, writes Professor of Education Barry Chazan, that is “central to the individual’s Jewish development.”  He explains that “experiencing is rooted in the interaction of the idea or event with the person’s life and with a continuum of ideas that enables the experience to contribute to ongoing personal growth.”

Interestingly, the Malbim (Deut. 31:12) employs this very idea to explain why people who don’t understand the words of the reading must participate in the event.  He writes that the experience will arouse in the individual the desire to learn in the future, which will then motivate him to action.  And action is what creation is all about, as the concluding verse of the creation narrative states, “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He ceased from all His work – asher bara Elokim la’asot – which God in creating had made.”  The Midrash notes that the last word is not, “had made” (asah), but rather “to do” (la’asot), rendering the phrase as, “which God had created to do.”  As such, the Midrash learns that, following the completion of God’s work, “there is still other work” to be done.

This “other work” consists of man’s creative efforts toward completing creation, toward perfecting the world.  To effectively fulfill this task, man’s efforts must be mediated by the Torah; for just as God looked into the Torah to create the world, so too must man employ it to complete creation.  In so doing he sanctifies creation, and in so doing he encounters the Creator Himself.

It is not, however, by transcending this world, by somehow reaching the heavenly heights, that man encounters his Creator, but rather by bringing Him down to this world, by applying His word and will in this world, that the encounter is made.  This distinction is emphasized by Rabbi Soloveitchik in his discussion of two types of religious personalities: homo religiousus and halakhic man.   While both seek to experience the divine, homo religiousus does so by attempting to release himself from the “the iron chains of empirical existence” to reach “a world that is wholly good and wholly eternal.”  Halakhic man, on the other hand, does not attempt to rise up to God, “but rather strives to bring down His divine presence in to the midst of the concrete world.”

Perhaps the most outstanding example of this idea is found in the command to build a dwelling place for God.  The Midrash explains that upon being commanded to build the Mishkan, Moses was confounded by the thought of the infinite Creator being confined to the finite dimensions of a physical structure.  God, however, responded: “I will contract My divine presence [so that it may dwell] in one square cubit” (Ex. Rabba 34).  And just as the Mishkan is the symbol of God’s presence in man’s world, so too is the sukkah, as the Sefat Emet notes, “the work of the Mishkan and that of the Sukkah are one and the same thing.”  As such, the Hakhel ceremony takes place on Sukkot to highlight the approach of halakhic man, of the imperative to apply the Torah to the concrete reality that is creation, and thus bring creation to perfection.

To convey this message, Hakhel, the recreation of the giving of the Torah on Sinai, was mandated every seven years, reminding us of the seven days of creation.  That is, the seven year Hakhel cycle serves to emphasize that the Torah is intimately connected with the very purpose of the seven day creation.  Indeed, Rabbeinu Bechayei notes that this is the reason the reading was done in Jerusalem: “The [Hakhel] reading of the Torah was conducted to teach the idea that the Torah is the very reason for the world and without which the world would not have been created – for this reason the reading was done in Jerusalem, the point from which the world was created.”

But completing creation is not a simple task; it demands that man “learn in order to act”, it demands that man apply himself to reality where “the still other work” awaits.  “The task of the religious individual is bound up with the performance of commandments, and this performance is confined to this world, to physical, concrete reality, to clamorous, tumultuous life, pulsating with exuberance and strength” (Soloveitchik).

To this end, the Hakhel reading was done at the end of the sabbatical year.  For one full year, the people had withdrawn from their agricultural, and by extension, business, activities to rest, or as tradition tells us, to study Torah.  But now, on the eve of their return to the “clamorous, tumultuous life” they must be reminded that it is specifically to such a life that the Torah is relevant.  “When halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand” (Soloveitchik).

The Hakhel ceremony, then, perpetuates the Torah in a dramatic way that no text could do.  It provides the ecstatic experience of receiving the Torah while conveying the imperative that it is to the experience of life itself to which the Torah must be applied.



About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at