By: Dr. Michael S. Berger
For many Jewish day schools in the Northern Hemisphere, the concluding Torah portions always coincide with the beginning of the school year. Sadly, these Biblical chapters get short shrift in day schools, as educators are busy preparing their students for the launch of the academic year and the Jewish holidays arrive in rapid succession. It is therefore worthwhile to reflect on some of these final chapters.
As we read the final portions of the Torah, Moshe’s role as leader of the Jewish people once again emerges with full force. Following almost 30 chapters that either recapped the main episodes of the wilderness wanderings or reviewed practical laws, Moshe is readying the people to cross the Jordan River – without him. After the lengthy chapter of blessings and curses (ch. 28), in which Moshe lays out in painful if prescient detail what will befall the Jewish people should they disobey the terms of the covenant, one clearly senses his need to reassure them that national flourishing in the land is in fact possible. As any great leader, he is concerned with what he will leave behind and whether his contributions will endure.
Moshe’s first strategy is to assemble all strata of Jewish society together (29:9-10) and bond them in a covenant of areivut – mutual responsibility – thus raising the collection of individuals into a genuine collective community on a shared mission. He also lays out the promise that failure is reversible – a setback – and that whenever they repent and return to God, they will reciprocally be restored to their ancestral Land (30:2-6). In contrast to the harsh tones of the earlier rebuke, the tone of Moshe’s words to the people become more hopeful, more supportive:
That which I command you today is neither beyond you nor far from you. It is not in heaven…nor beyond the sea…for the matter is extremely close to you, to your mouth and heart to do. (30:12-14)
Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live… (30:19)
Yet the lawgiver in Moshe is irrepressible. As a final gesture, he writes the Torah, gives it to the priests and elders who are vested with the nation’s spiritual leadership (31:9) and commands them to stage a major national revival every seven years (31:10-13). Men, women and children will assemble in a massive gathering at which they will hear the Torah read, “so that they will hear and so that they will learn to fear the Lord their God and be sure to observe all the words of this Torah” (31:12). This ceremony is referred to as hak-hel (“the gathering”) and would have been the final mitzvah of the Torah.
What sort of ceremony is this? At first blush, it seems to be a reproduction of the great spectacle at the beginning of their wanderings – the revelation at Sinai just seven weeks after they left Egypt. But underlying this ceremony is the social nature of Jewish practice. In keeping with the immediately prior covenant of mutual responsibility, Moshe wants everyone to gather together, putting their collectivity on full display. With the priests and elders, and the many who follow them, serving as exemplars, all the assembled Jews, especially the young ones (v. 13), will re-affirm their practice of the Torah – their shared Torah.
What follows is perhaps one of the most tragic passages in the entire Bible. Moshe and Joshua are called into the Tent of Communion by God, and Moshe is told that in spite of all his efforts, the people will in fact reject God and abandon the covenant (31:16-18). I shudder to think what went through Moshe’s heart at that moment. He learns that all his hard work, the challenges he faced and the burdens he bore for 40 years will be for naught. No message could have been as disheartening as this to any leader, and certainly to Moshe.
But with the disease comes the antidote. Moshe is instructed to write down a “poem” (shirah) and to teach it to the people, to “place it in their mouths” (v. 19). God promises that this song “will not be forgotten” by future generations (v. 21), and will thus serve to ensure the covenant. Jewish tradition takes this verse to refer to what turns out to be the final, 613th commandment – for each person to write a Sefer Torah. How would this be an antidote?
I believe God was saying to Moshe that his method, his strategy of hak-hel, no matter how inspiring, is not enough. It is tempting to rely on socialization – after all, many of us to look to our peer group to help us decide what is acceptable and unacceptable. Indeed, throughout Jewish history, every group that has had a distinctive vision of the Jewish life has sought to create a special community – whether synagogue or day school – in exactly its own image, hoping to transmit its Jewish vision to the next generation. While socialization is somewhat effective, God says it cannot work long-term. Only when each individual Jew attains personal knowledge of God’s word – has his or her own set of scrolls to consult and study regularly – will the covenant endure. If originally only the king had his own Torah scroll that accompanied him at all times (Deut. 17: 18-19), by the end of Deuteronomy God wants every Jew to have the same level of literacy, the same personal access to Judaism’s sacred words.
If all we want to provide the next generation of Jews is a sense of identity, then perhaps the occasional inspiring synagogue service or pride-producing communal trip or event – a contemporary hak-hel – would suffice. But as Dr. Marc Kramer, director of RAVSAK, recently noted, day schools are in the business of providing their students with critical levels of personal Jewish literacy. Schools must be much more than places where large numbers of Jews are socialized to whatever view of Jewish life the school’s leaders envision. If we read the final chapter of Moshe’s life carefully, we must conclude that our goal is to give students personal and deep access to their tradition – facility with Judaism’s sacred texts in their original language – built on the uplifting if occasional experience of being part of the larger Jewish story. These two methods, working jointly, will guarantee a Jewish future.
AVI CHAI’s vision includes a vibrant Jewish future for North American Jewry. While short, intensive educational experiences are able to imprint and socialize young Jews into a personal Jewish identity, day schools are institutions that foster high levels of lasting Jewish literacy among their students, helping young Jews write the Torah for themselves, as it were. Through many of its programs, the Foundation has sought to help schools achieve this ambitious goal. As AVI CHAI nears its own sunset, we hope to join with other funders whose work will continue past AVI CHAI’s lifespan to enable more young American Jews to have the experience of the last two commandments of the Torah.
Dr. Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.
AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.
The “Real” Last Mitzvah
Posted by: Michael Berger
September 17, 2013
By: Dr. Michael S. Berger