Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 11 September 2021 / 5 Tishrei 5782


by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The Great Assembly

At the end of seven years — at the conclusion of the Shemittah year, on the “mo’ed” — which is understood as the holiday of Succot — there was a public reading of the Book of Devarim at the Sanctuary. This commandment was not intended as a means of making the Law known to the people. The duty of study exists every day of the year, in all years. The septennial nature of this event indicates that it seeks to attain a special purpose.

The timing of this gathering is significant. It was the time of the “mo’ed” (lit. appointed meeting time), the time when Jewish souls are invited to meet and connect with Hashem. This time is at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year, when the agricultural and commercial cycle is resumed after a year of release. It is on the festival of Succot, in which we remember the wilderness period, where there was neither agriculture nor commerce, but only Hashem’s grace that kept the people alive and they were protected with His cloud.

The entire nation was to appear before Hashem — men, women, and children. As the new cycle of agriculture and commerce began, the supreme representative of the people would read the Torah to the assembly, proclaiming that the Torah is the only condition for the continued vitality and protection of the nation.

This mitzvah is unusual in that it obligates women, who are ordinarily exempt from time-bound obligations, and also obligates the bringing of children. The purpose of this assembly and reading is so that all present will “hear” and “learn” and “fear Hashem.” They will hear of the Divine origins of the Torah (in the passages read). This consciousness shall have the effect of spurring constant growth and study in Torah. Both the momentous event and the learning will bring the people to the fear of Hashem.

The children, who have not yet attained understanding to be brought to study and observance of Torah, “shall hear and learn to fear Hashem.” When they listen to the reading together with their parents and grandparents at the great assembly, the occasion will leave an imprint on their souls. Seeing the multitudes listening with reverence will move them, too, to the fear of Hashem.

In the case of even younger children, who will not remember the event, the Sages explain the purpose is to give reward to those who bring them. When the parents assemble before Hashem and gather around the Torah with their babes, they express the yearning for the Torah to later win over these children so that Torah should never be forgotten in Israel.

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 31:10-11

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