Rabbi David Walk
There are very few occasions when the entire Jewish nation was expected to gather in one place for the purpose of hearing momentous material. The most famous, of course, was the epiphany at Mt. Sinai to hear the Decalogue. Less famous, but, perhaps, equally important for Jewish history was the mass meeting in Shechem upon arrival into the Holy Land. This gathering had the feel of a revival meeting. The Cohanim would announce curses and the entire nation would exclaim 'Amen!' This mass meeting was commanded by Moshe before his death, and fulfilled by Yehoshua after the Conquest. Then there was the instruction to have a mass recital of the book of Deuteronomy by the King at the Holy Temple during Sukkot in the year following the Shmitta or Sabbatical year. And that's all folks, except for this week's parsha. So, obviously the question this week is, what is so important about the material in our parsha that it required this rare format?
There are a number of answers to this question, naturally. The Ibn Ezra wrote that the instructions for building the mishkan or portable temple were so important because this structure would keep the Mt. Sinai experience alive. The Ramban, a century later, explained that the entire end portion of the book of Exodus (last five Torah readings) is about maintaining the redemption process of leaving Egypt through receiving the Law in our midst forever. So, the whole nation had to be made aware of this reality, just like the whole nation experienced it originally. Others point out that the national gathering is directly connected to the observance of Shabbat, and isn't concerned with the mishkan at all. Since Shabbat is the great unifier of the Jewish nation, they had to hear it in a great national assembly. Both answers have merit, but I'd like to provide two modern approaches to this issue.
The first idea was presented by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etziyon a few years ago, and is based on the premise that this assembly took place after the first Yom Kippur, when the Jews were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf and the second set of Tablets were given. He suggested that Moshe had become very distant from the nation during the tumultuous 120 days since hearing the Ten Commandments. During the plagues and the fifty day trek to Mt. Sinai, Moshe had always been around. He presented a loving, avuncular presence, which reassured this clearly nervous community. But right after the epiphany he disappeared for 40 days. When the nation thought that he wasn't coming back, they sinned. In reaction to this horrendous event, Moshe smashed the Tablets, and supervised the execution of three thousand Jews. This was a stern, severe Moshe they had never experienced before. Then he prayed for eighty days in total solitude. The nation didn't know that he was pleading their case before God. They had no idea that Moshe refused to become the father of a new nation, because he loved them so. According to Rabbi Lichtenstein, we as readers understand that Moshe's love and dedication are undiminished, but the Jews of the desert see only rage, distance and dissociation. Therefore, God provided this moment of reconnection between Moshe and each and every member of the nation. That's why it was so important that they were all there.
The Sfat Emet (second Gerer Rebbe, Rav Aryeh Leib Yehuda Altar, 1836-1905) explains this conundrum in a different but parallel way. He describes how unified and holy the Jews had become at Mt. Sinai during the declaration of the Ten Commandments. All of this was lost at the time of the Golden Calf. This is similar to the mystical description of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were created very special and holy, but with the eating of the fruit they became spiritually polluted. This first human couple never even tried to regain their original status. With the Jews it would be different. Moshe petitioned God for the sin to be erased and the Jews to regain their former greatness. This happened on Yom Kippur when the second tablets were presented. The plea for teshuva, repentance, worked. Unlike the first humans, the Jews would fall but get back up again. Flesh and blood can't be perfect, but we can rehab, repent and renew. The assembly represented a renewal of the covenant at Sinai on Shavuot. It marked our return to the status quo ante.
Both of these great Jewish thinkers, really agree on the most essential point. Unity provides reconciliation. The Rebbe and the Rosh Yeshiva only disagree on the detail of who was to be rehabilitated by the happening. Rabbi Lichtenstein proposes that Moshe benefited from the assembly, while the Sfat Emet suggests that it was the Jewish nation as a whole. But the central line of reasoning is the same. We gain great advantage from displays of solidarity. I remember when Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped by terrorists (Oct. 9, 1994), a tremendous prayer service took place at the Kotel for his safe return. However, it wasn't to be. At his funeral his father stressed that the display of unity was good for the nation even tough their specific request was denied. I strongly agree with that assessment.
All too often, the greatest challenge to Jewish survival is our disunity, and internal strife. The greatest moments in Jewish history are those when we stood shoulder to shoulder in harmony. I pray that we work hard to achieve this in or time. We must stress what we have in common, rather than our differences.
I wrote this piece last week, and since then my beloved mother, Lillian Walk passed away, and I dedicate this article to her memory.
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