The Security and Continuity of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

דברים פרק לא, י-יג

(י) וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת: (יא) בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: (יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת: (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

The 612th mitzvah in the Torah requires us to read the Torah publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. There are two questions I have on this passage. First, why is not listed among other mitzvot earlier in Devarim? If it has anything to do with Sukkot and/or shemitta, why not share it in Parashat Re’eh? Second, why only once every seven years? If the goal is “in order to hear, to learn, and to fear the Lord your Gd,” should we not be obligated to read the Torah much more frequently?

I suggest that the purpose of this public reading is not the immediate experience of Talmud Torah, or the short-term goal of conveying information. Rather, it is about ensuring the continuity of Torah and the teaching of Moshe Rabbeinu while simultaneously maintaining the superiority of the Torah over any future leader.

We know that Moshe is unique; in fact, he is the greatest prophet of all time. This appears explicitly in the description of Moshe upon his death (Devarim 34:10), and Gd also conveys this to Aharon and Miriam when saying that while Gd communicates with most prophets through visions, Moshe was privy to direct communication (Bamidbar 12:6-8). Furthermore, beyond his singular access to Gd, Moshe so far has been the only prophet or leader to teach Torah to B’nei Yisrael. All these factors combined might raise questions about the security of Torah and of the next leader – perhaps neither the Torah nor subsequent leaders could command the same authority that Moshe did. Or, a leader might try to assert authority by means of casting the Torah aside.  Thus, hak’hel upholds the authority of the Torah. It simultaneously supports the leader who fosters the observance of the Torah while serving as a check for the one who may try to circumvent it. The Torah holds its absolute authority in every generation, regardless of the will of any future leader or the will of the masses.

This would explain why these pesukim appear in this context and not earlier in Devarim. Before the mitzvah of hak’hel, Moshe provides extra support and reassurance to Yehoshua, which has already been described in the Torah (Devarim 3:28). The continuity of leadership is clearly of concern, so the Torah itself serves as a reassurance to Yehoshua. No matter who the leader is, the Jewish people and its leadership structure will be preserved through the authority of the Torah.

This seems to emerge also from the person who reads the Torah. The Mishnah (Sotah 7:8) describes the king as the one who reads the Torah, but Netziv points out (Devarim 31:11) that the original mitzvah of hak’hel is on Yehoshua, and in subsequent generations, on whoever the top leader is (be it the king or, if no political entity, the Kohen Gadol). The point is that whoever the leader may be, the Torah is in full force. If that leader furthers observance, his authority is to be maintained; but the leader himself reading it also serves a check. [1]

This may shed some light as to why the Torah is read only every seven years. Clearly, not much knowledge is to be conveyed in one presentation that takes place so infrequently. On a peshat level, it would seem that hak’hel is connected to shemitta because that is when people are physically and spiritually available to learn. But if what we have been saying is correct, another layer of hak’hel is to simultaneously preserve the authority of the Torah and its leader, and this needs to be conveyed only semi-frequently. Each generation should experience this continuity and be instilled with a יראה that inspires a general commitment to Torah (this goal of יראה is stated twice in the passage). While presumably, the details of Torah and its morals are still being communicated more frequently, this particular experience need take place regularly enough to be memorable but also sparingly enough to maintain its significance.

The reassurance that Moshe gives Yehoshua is that the invaluable teachings of the Torah do not expire with the death of Moshe. Likewise, the Torah itself is greater than any leader or any generation. The Torah bestows authority upon its greatest thinkers and practitioners, and they are invested with great responsibility to convey it to the people. When a great Torah scholar passes, it is necessarily of great anguish for the community – yet, the Torah continues to impact each subsequent generation. At the same time, leaders and scholars are not above the Torah; they answer to Torah, not the Torah to them. This model of checks-and-balances ensures the continuing integrity of the Torah, and thereby, the Jewish people. While the bulk of our relationship to Torah might be to learning its details and nuances, once in a while, we should step back and appreciate the distinctive role the Torah plays in every generation.

Notes:

[1] See Rabbi Elchanan Samet for related comments on this point.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is completing semicha and a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history at Yeshiva University. He is currently a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School and has served as rabbinic intern at The Roslyn Synagogue and Young Israel of Plainview.

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