Tuesday, June 18, 2024 -
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The once-in-every-7-years-ritual is upon us

When a person is about to die, his last words are laden with meaning. How much more so when the person is the most significant leader the Jewish people has ever known: Moses.

Among his last words were the 612th of the 613 commandments. That it is observed only once every seven years adds to its significance. After the conclusion of a Sabbatical year (which 5768 was), the Torah records one of Moses’ last speeches (in this very week’s Torah portion):

“And Moses commanded them, saying: At the end of seven years, at the time of the Sabbatical year, during the Sukkot festival, when all Israel comes to appear before the L-rd your G-d, in the place that He will choose [Jerusalem], you shall read this Torah before all Israel . . . Gather together the people — the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities — so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear the L-rd your G-d, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.”

With the conclusion of the passage, G-d tells Moses that he is about to die and instructs him to summon Joshua, his successor. Clearly, the hakhel gathering — the 612th commandment — highlights Moses’ testament to the generations.

The entire people is to gather on the first intermediate day of Sukkot at the Temple to listen to the king of Israel read from the book of Deuteronomy, on which Moses’ personal stamp is placed. Specifically, the king is to read the first two paragraphs of the Shema and 14:22-28:69. Moses’ final exhortations to the Jewish people mark the conclusion of the momentous Sabbatical year, when people do not work the land and their trust in G-d is tested and affirmed. These are lessons for everyone, “the men, the women, the small children and the stranger.”

Like much of Jewish life since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, this observance is suspended in its fullness. Also like much of Jewish life since then, there are “shadow” observances that parallel the originals.

So it is this year: a great opportunity to revisit a Temple practice; to revisit the unity of the Jewish people of all ages; to revisit Deuteronomy with its messages of Divine covenant and allegiance to the one G-d; to revisit the tremendous faith that so many farmers in Israel have shown this Sabbatical year, 5768; and to revisit the bounty that G-d gives us as we acknowledge that the earth is the L-rd’s.

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