- Weekly D'var Torah
The Assembly: Responsibility, Authority and Sovereignty
This week’s parsha, Vayalech (“And he went”), focuses on the very last day of Moshe Rabbenu’s life. There is much to discuss here, but this week I want to focus on the section that commands us to hold the Hachel (“Assembly”) ceremony—the public Torah reading that occurs every seven years during Sukkot:
“And Moses instructed them as follows: 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.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-11)
This oration is all the more fascinating when you consider the logistics involved. Biblically speaking, this is the only public event for which every Jew was commanded to attend (this mitzvah is only in place when all Jews live in Israel, though some Jews, especially the Lubavitch, encourage it as a time to connect and study). The king and his house were responsible for organizing the event. They would build a special wooden platform, and the king himself was obliged to read from the Torah:
...Every individual should see himself as if he is now being commanded, and it is from G‑d's mouth that he is hearing these words. For the king is only the messenger to announce G‑d's words … The talk of all the nation – men, women and children – would then be: "Why have we assembled for this large gathering?" And the answer would be: "To hear the words of the Torah—our essence, glory and pride!" This would lead them to praise the Torah and speak of its glorious worth, and implant within their hearts a desire and motivation to study and know G‑d. Thus they will merit the ultimate good, and G‑d will rejoice in His creations. (Sefer haChinuch mitzvah 612)
Earlier, God seems to more or less grudgingly accept the notion of a king, agreeing that when the Jews had settled in Israel, they would want to be “like other nations” and choose a leader (Deuteronomy 17:14). But that didn’t mean the king should have complete authority; indeed,
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching (Torah) written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. (Deuteronomy 17:18–19).
Seen one way, this aspect of the Hachel was an equalizer. The king was seated above the masses, who stood; but even while in this favored position, he would be expected to proclaim God’s word.
It was a powerful, and public, message about how to wield authority: that leaders hold enormous power; but the king’s power is plenipotentiary, not sovereign; that even the king sits in service; and that the king is finally responsible for ensuring God’s word, through the Torah, is heard.