Parashat Vayelekh

Strength In Numbers

The commandment to gather every seven years for a communal Torah reading reinforces the spirit of unity and commitment among the people.

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

In this parashah, Moses announces to the people his impending death and confirms that Joshua will lead the people across the Jordan to conquer the land that God is giving them. He then tells them that once every seven years, on the festival of Sukkot, they shall gather together and "read this teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:11). Why is this instruction included here, rather than with other laws relating to the festivals or the conduct of life in the land?

The Israelites are about to lose the only leader they have ever known. Moses offers them Joshua, his God-approved successor. He reminds them that they will have leadership beyond that of Joshua. "The Lord God marches with you...the Lord...will not fail you or forsake you" (Deuteronomy 31:6ff.). Still, Moses senses that the Israelites are afraid; life without Moses is difficult to face. So he reminds them that, in addition to God and human leadership, they have two sources of strength, Torah and community. These sources of strength are, unlike any human leader, perpetual and, unlike God, are perceived as being highly accessible.

There are times when a community is uncertain that its human leadership can meet its needs. While God is described as the leader of the Jewish people, there may be moments when we feel distant from God. At these times, we may find our greatest strength lies in our ties to each other.

A ceremony like the one mandated in this parashah reinforces the sense of unity the community needs. A large gathering of Jews often raises the spirits of the individuals involved and gives them a renewed sense of purpose. The public reading of the Torah reminds the Israelites of the goals that they are committed to as a community, reintroducing the blueprint for repairing the world to those who are mandated to carry it out.

Dvora Weisberg

Dvora Weisberg is Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Director of the Beit Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.