Gather the People
As Moshe's speech draws to an end, he addresses some of the practical, pragmatic issues at hand; one such item is the issue of succession:
And Moshe called Yehoshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel: 'Be strong and of good courage; for you shall go with this people into the land that God has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall cause them to inherit it. And it God Himself goes before you; He will be with you, He will not fail you or forsake you. Have no fearor trepidation.' (Devarim 31:7-8)
Moshe will no longer lead the people; Yehoshua will take over the mantle of leadership. This message is echoed several verses later, when God speaks for the first time in the book:(1)
And God said to Moshe: 'Behold, the day of your death is approaching; call Yehoshua, and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may charge him.' And Moshe and Yehoshua went, and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting. And God appeared in the Tent in a pillar of cloud; and the pillar of cloud stood over the door of the Tent. (Devarim 31:14-15)
The narrative seems natural, logical: Moshe's life, and his mission, are coming to an end, and God is about to fulfill Moshe's own request that a successor be appointed so that the nation will not be "like a flock with no shepherd." But then, the narrative is interrupted and a new law is transmitted: a law called hakhel.
To be sure, the Book of Devarim is no stranger to law. Various laws are taught here for the first times, though the book largely repeats laws transmitted in earlier sections of the Torah(2) - hence the moniker Deuteronomy(3) - Mishneh Torah, the repetition of the Torah.(4) In addition to the new laws and the repeated laws, there is a third category: a number of laws that had been taught previously are re-stated, with additional elements that had not been taught earlier. Such is the case regarding the law of hakhel. As we have noted, the narrative that precedes or leads up to this law is concerned with Moshe's final days. It is specifically because his life is almost at an end that he takes up the task of writing the Torah, which had until that point been transmitted orally, and giving it to the kohanim and the elders, who from that day forward are entrusted with the task of educating the nation. The very next verse, the legal verse that "interrupts" the narrative, tells us about an aspect of shmitah with which we are unfamiliar: Although the laws of shmitah were taught in great detail in the Book of Vayikra (at the foot of Mount Sinai) (5), here, in Moshe's parting speech 38 years later, a new element of shmitah observance is introduced; the new aspect is called hakhel:
And Moshe wrote this law, and gave it to the kohanim, the sons of Levi who bore the Ark of the Covenant of God, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moshe commanded them, saying: 'At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the shmitah (sabbatical) year, during the festival Sukkot (Tabernacles), when all Israel is come to appear before the Almighty your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel so that they will hear. Assemble the people, the men and the women and the children, and the stranger that lives among you, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Almighty your God, and take care to observe and fulfill all the words of this Torah; and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Almighty your God, as long as you live in the land which you are crossing the Jordan to possess inherit.' (Devarim 31:9-13)
The law of hakhel states that at the end(6) of the sabbatical year the nation should be gathered and the Torah read to them by the king. It is not difficult to imagine other, perhaps more natural contexts in which this law could have been taught previously: either within the sections dealing with the laws of the sabbatical year, or in the laws dealing with kings. Why "interrupt" the narrative concerning the succession of Yehoshua with the law of hakhel?
Let us search for some underlying logic by examining this law in a general sense. Shmitah may be the quintessential "law of the Land of Israel;" it concerns the agricultural society that will be established when the Jews arrive in the Promised Land, and is applicable only within the borders of the Land of Israel. Certainly, it may be argued, it is logical that this law be taught to those who will soon enter the Holy Land, especially since their continued presence in the Land is contingent upon this law.(7) If this is so, perhaps all of the laws of shmitah should have been taught at this juncture; if, though, shmitah was given to the Jews as a means of restoring their belief that would eventually inherit the Land of Israel even after their severe punishment for their own sins, why was the aspect of hakhel "left out" until Moshe's final speech?
The mitzvah itself does not seem to hold the key to solving this problem; therefore, let us consider the narrative, the story of the succession of Moshe by Yehoshua. As leader of the people, Moshe wore many hats: He was the diplomat who negotiated with Pharaoh, but he was also a freedom fighter(8) who aroused the Jewish People to seek their own spiritual and physical liberation. At one and the same time, he was the liberator, and the giver and enforcer of the law. Moshe was an unparalleled spiritual leader; it was he who climbed Sinai and procured the Tablets of Testimony and brought them down to earth. Moshe taught the law, judged wrongdoers and exacted punishment, but it was Moshe who protected the people from God's anger when they transgressed. Replacing Moshe in any one of these roles left the other roles vacant: replacing 'Moshe the political leader' with someone who would take them into the Promised Land and secure the nation's inheritance was very different from replacing 'Moshe the prophet' whose clarity of vision and unparalleled relationship with God could not be reproduced.(9)
Yehoshua might be capable of leading the nation in battle;(10) this was a task he had already performed. Perhaps he could lead them to the Promised Land, as a guide - with the assistance of God as a forward scout. However, in the task of spiritual leader, Yehoshua would necessarily, inescapably, fall short, for no one was like Moshe. In fact, at the end of the narrative, when Moshe dies and Yehoshua takes over, the Torah stresses this vacuum:
And the Children of Israel wept for Moshe in the plains of Moav thirty days; so the days of weeping in the mourning for Moshe were ended. And Yehoshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moshe had laid his hands upon him; and the Children of Israel obeyed him, and did as God commanded Moshe. And there has never since arisen a prophet in Israel like Moshe, whom God knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders which God sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Paroh and to all his servants, and to all his land; and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moshe wrought in the sight of all Israel. (Devraim 34:8-12)
The solution to our problem, then, lies neither in the narrative nor in the laws of shmitah, but in the underlying significance of hakhel. The Rambam explains that the essence of hakhel is experiential: When the entire nation gathers together and hears the Torah read by their leader, the experience is reminiscent of the Revelation at Sinai.(11) The new generation that will be led by Yehoshua, and all subsequent generations who will not have Moshe as their leader, will feel disadvantaged, empty and distant from those great events that their fathers experienced and that forged them into a nation. They, too, will feel the need for a revelation, or at least a quasi-revelation. This is precisely the function of hakhel: the gathering of the entire nation to hear the Word of God will be the "revelation experience" for each subsequent generation. Moshe makes this clear in an earlier section of his parting speech when he uses very particular words to describe the Revelation at Sinai:
And He wrote on the Tablets as He did in the first writing, the Ten Utterances which God spoke to you at the Mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and God gave them to me. (Devarim 10:4)
With Moshe gone, the greatest spiritual leader the Jewish People would ever know would no longer available. The people may have felt spiritually orphaned. Moshe foresaw the crisis, and took action on two fronts to stave it off before it began: First, he gave a copy of the Torah to the people, entrusting them with the very Word of God and insuring that Torah study could continue after his passing. Then, he taught them the law of hakhel, which would allow the spiritual feeling of revelation to be replicated. Surely, this would be no more than a shadow of the Revelation at Sinai; the king would lead them and teach them, and not Moshe, with his unique prophetic abilities. They would receive a second-hand report of the Word of God rather than hearing the voice from on high speaking directly to them. Nonetheless, the power of the mass gathering of the entire people, men women and children, to hear the Torah read before them, would recreate the unity of history and purpose felt at Sinai, and to a certain extent, the spirituality of that earlier revelation. Therefore, as Yehoshua is empowered to take up the reigns, the people are given tools that would avert the crisis that Moshe's demise would surely bring about. These are the tolls that would enable them, after the period of mourning, to arise and continue their great march toward destiny, with Yehoshua at the helm.
1. While most of Devarim are the words of Moshe, there are some sections which a "narrator" speaks, including the first few verses of the book. The status of the book of Devarim as a full-fledged member of the Five Books of the Torah, as the Word of God, as part of the Written, as opposed to the Oral Torah, is achieved when God instructs Moshe to write these words down. For more on this issue, see Explorations, Parshat Devarim.
2. See Introduction of the Ramban to Devarim, and the Introduction of the Netziv in the Ha'amek Davar.
3. See Tosfot, Gittin 2a: Hameivi Get.
4. See Talmud Bavli, Avoda Zara 25a.
5. See Rashi Vayikra 25:1.
6. The Ibn Ezra (Devarim 31:10) disagrees with the normative rabbinic understanding and opines that this law is to be fulfilled in the beginning of the Sabbatical year. The word in the Torah is miketz which could indicate beginning or end.
7. As is stressed in the rebuke in parshat Bechukotai, see Vayikra 26:34-35.
8. Shmot 2:11-12.
9. See Bamidbar 12:7-8.
10. See Shmot 17:9-10.
11. See Rambam Mishne Torah Laws of Chagigah chapter 3 law 6. There is some intrigue regarding where the law should begin, and the proper place for the first three words of the law found in our printed text. For more on this and on Hakhel in general see Rabbi Ari D. Kahn: "The Commandment of Hakhel," Council of Young Israel Rabbi annual journal volume 2 1988, pp74ff.