to hear and to write
The two shortest readings in the Torah, Nitzavim and Vayelech, are often read together, as we read them this week. When placed next to each other, the contrast between their names is striking: “Nitzavim” meaning “standing firm” on the one hand, and “Vayelech” meaning “he went”, on the other.
The paradox is clear. In Nitzavim, the people of Israel who are about to move forward into the land of Israel are standing still. In Vayelech, Moses, who is not going with them, hurries about from tribe to tribe sharing his final words.
This contrast between the community and the individual, and between the static and the dynamic, is reflected in the last two of the 613 commandments, which we learn about in this week’s reading:
Commandment number is known as “Hakhel” – or “Assemble”. Every seven years, at the time of Sukkot in the sabbatical year, the entire congregation of Israel – “the men and the women, and the children, and the stranger in your gates” – was to gather in Jerusalem and hear a public reading of the Torah.
The book of Nehemiah (Chapter 8) gives a vivid description of the performance of the Hakhel ceremony by Ezra after the return of the Jews to Israel, following the Babylonian exile. As well as describing the dramatic public reading for which all the people gathered ‘as one man’, the description also includes a number of elements which have become the basis for the way in which the Torah is read in synagogues today: reading from a special bima or platform, making a special blessing over the Torah and lifting up the scroll so that all the congregation can see it.
With the establishment of the State of Israel, there was discussion about reviving the historic Hakhel ceremony, and several years ago, on the last Sabbatical year, a large scale public Torah reading was actually held at the Western Wall.
The 613th commandment suggests a different approach to ensuring the continuity of the tradition. The commandment is derived from the verse:
“Now write down this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel and put it into their mouths”.
According to most of the traditional commentators, the song referred to here is the entire Torah, and the commandment to write it down applies to every individual. While clearly not every member of the Jewish people is expected to become a scribe, the commandment to write a Torah can be fulfilled by possessing and studying Jewish books, and supporting their publication and education in general. In recent years there have also been a number of campaigns in the Jewish world to encourage people to “buy” a letter in a Torah scroll and so participate in the actual writing of a Torah.
These last two commandments in the Bible both address the question of how Jewish teaching and tradition is to be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. But the two commandments suggest two very different models of how to achieve this. In particular, they suggest three contrasting approaches:
- The community versus the individual: The Hakhel ceremony takes place in front of the entire community of Israel. Writing a Torah, on the other hand, is a private and individual act, as the commandment itself emphasises (“Write… for yourselves”).
- The passive versus the active: The public reading of the Torah is a passive occurrence; all that is required from the people is that they listen. In writing the Torah, a positive act – of writing – is required. And the emphasis is less on the ear than on the mouth: the command is to place the Torah “into the mouths” of the children of Israel, so that they can actively expound the Torah.
- The fixed versus the dynamic: The Hakhel reading can only occur at a fixed time and a fixed place. It follows a set format, and is designed to preserve the integrity of the tradition. The command to write one’s own Torah, by contrast, can be fulfilled at any time and place.
Taken together, these two commandments suggest that in seeking to ensure continuity for Jewish tradition, we are likely to find ourselves in a continual tension between the community seeking to maintain a fixed and universal understanding of the tradition and the individual seeking to give it a more creative and dynamic expression.
Perhaps these tensions can never be adequately resolved; perhaps indeed they are not meant to be. But as we confront them, we may find some comfort in a comment by Rabbi Yechiel Epstein (Lithuania, 19th century) who, in the introduction to his halakhic code, Arukh Hashulchan, asks why, in this week’s reading, the Torah is referred to as a “song”. His answer: The Jewish tradition is full of differences of opinion and arguments. For this reason the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices which join together, creating a beautiful harmony.
In others’ words
“You exemplify one God, one Jewish spirit, one Torah. When I see how you rejoice, I know there is a great future ahead of us. Your true role is to unleash the great energy of the Jewish people and to ride that energy for tikkun olam (repairing the world).”
Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, Address to Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University on the occasion of the ordination of 185 Rabbis, March 2006
On a lighter note
A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has been given a part in the school play.
“Wonderful,” says the mother, “What part is it?”
The boy says “I play the part of the Jewish husband!”
The mother scowls and says: “Go back and tell your teacher you want a speaking part!!”