Nitzavim-Vayelech: Gather the People

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nitzavim-Vayelech

Hello again!

I really thought I’d be able to write a commentary last week but traveling kept me from the books- and of course, when you get back from a week away you spend a week catching up, so here we are, a bit off course from our theme of prayer but we’ll be back to that next week.

This week we read a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, in which Moshe gives the people the final mitzvot of the Torah, including the interesting mitzvah of hekel, or gathering the entire people every seven years to hear words of Torah:

“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. (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 31:10-12)

Most commentators understand “this teaching” to refer to D’varim [Deuteronomy] itself. The public reading was done by the king, in Jerusalem, in the beginning year of the seven-year Shmittah [Sabbatical year] cycle. The scholar known as the Kli Yakar asks why the Torah commands all the people to be gathered during Sukkot, and why it had to be in the year right after the Shmittah, in which many kinds of labor and finances ceased (at least in theory.)

The Kli Yakar sees the timing of the gathering as part of the message: we’ve just concluded Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for individuals, yet there are some sins which are not individual but communal, on the level of the society or nation. Thus, while Yom Kippur is the day when we do individual “returning” or repentance, there has to be a time when we resolve together to correct problems in society, such exploitation of the poor or weak. (His example, not mine.) This message of social t’shuvah or repentance is connected with the mitzvah of lulav and etrog, which symbolize the connection and integration of different parts of society into a greater and more just whole.

Not only that, but the reason that the national gathering happened right after the Shmittah year, when debts were forgiven and the land rested, was to remind the nation not to fall back into its habits of abusing or neglecting the poor. As I understand the teaching, after a radical interruption of “business as usual,” there was an opportunity to remind the people as to the moral meaning of the preceding year, in the hopes that the ethic of the Shmittah year would continue throughout the next cycle.

Some sins are personal, but some are structural, and we have to imagine how our society might look differently after a communal return to core values.

“Gather the people. . . . ”

Personal spiritual introspection is necessary. . . .but there are some things we have to fix together.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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