Parshat Ki Tavo

Day 23:
Achieving immortality through renewal

The moment had come. Moshe was about to die. What did he do on these final days of his life? He issued two instructions, the last of the 613 mitzvot, that were to have significant consequences for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. The first is known as hakhel, the command that the king summon the people to gather during Succot following the seventh, shemittah year. 

“At the end of every seven years, in the year for cancelling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place He will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people – men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns – so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Devarim 31: 10- 13)

The second command – the last Moshe ever gave to the people – was contained in the words: “Now write down this song and teach it to the Israelites” (Devarim 31:19), understood by rabbinic tradition to be the command to write, or at least take part in writing, a Sefer Torah. Why specifically these two mitzvot, at this time?

In these last two commands God was teaching Moshe, and through him Jews throughout the ages, what immortality is – on earth, not just in heaven. We are mortal because we are physical, and no physi­cal organism lives forever. We grow up, we grow old, we grow frail, we die. But we are not only physical. We are also spiritual. In these last two commands, we are taught what it is to be part of a spirit that has not died in four thousand years, and will not die so long as there is a sun, moon, and stars.

God showed Moshe, and through him us, how to become part of a civilization that never grows old. It stays young because it repeatedly renews itself. The last two commands of the Torah are about renewal, first collective, then individual.

The mitzva of hakhel, the covenant renewal ceremony every seven years, ensured that the nation would regularly rededicate itself to its mission. If hakhel is national renewal, the command that we should each take part in the writing of a new Sefer Torah is personal renewal. It was Moshe’s way of saying to all future generations: It is not enough for you to say, I received the Torah from my parents (or grandparents, or great-grandparents). You have to take it and make it new in every generation.

The concept of covenant played a decisive role in European politics in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, especially in Calvin’s Geneva and in Scotland, Holland, and England. Its longest-lasting impact, though, was on America, where it was taken by the early Puritan settlers and remains part of its political culture even today. Almost every Presidential Inaugural Address – every four years since 1789 – has been, explicitly or implicitly, a covenant renewal ceremony, a contemporary form of hakhel

In 1987, speaking at the bicentennial celebration of the American Constitution, President Ronald Reagan described the constitution as a kind of “covenant we’ve made not only with ourselves but with all of mankind… It’s a human covenant; yes, and beyond that, a covenant with the Supreme Being to whom our founding fathers did constantly appeal for assistance.” America’s duty, he said, is “to constantly renew their covenant with humanity… to complete the work begun 200 years ago, that grand noble work that is America’s particular calling – the triumph of human freedom, the triumph of human freedom under God.”

One of the most striking features of Jewish life is that from Israel to Palo Alto, Jews are among the world’s most enthusiastic users of information technology and have contributed disproportionately to its development (Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Waze). But we still write the Torah exactly as it was done thousands of years ago – by hand, with a quill, on a parchment scroll. This is not a paradox; it is a profound truth. People who carry their past with them can build the future without fear.

How precisely timed, therefore, and how beautiful, that at the very moment when the greatest of prophets faced his own mortality, God should give him, and us, the secret of immortality – not just in heaven but down here on earth. For when we keep to the terms of the covenant, and making it new again in our lives, we live on in those who come after us, whether through our children or our disciples, or those we have helped or influenced. We “renew our days as of old” (Eichah 5:21).

Moshe died, but what he taught and what he sought lives on our selves and in our children.

Parsha Partner
Life lessons from the parsha: “You are standing today before G-d… and your children…” If minors are too young to participate in the covenant, why are they there at all? Moshe is teaching that parents must not only accept the Torah for themselves, but are also responsible to educate their children. There is no greater gift a parent can give a child than a meaningful Jewish education. Learn more in this week’s Parsha Partner.

(Courtesy of Partners In Torah)

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Bonus Material

Jewish Memory by Rabbanit Shani Taragin

In 2017, I attended World Mizrachi’s celebration of Jerusalem Day in Binyanei Hauma (ICC) along with thousands of others, in honor of fifty years of a reunified Jerusalem. I was sitting just seats away from Rabbi Sacks – the keynote speaker. I recall not only his passion and fervor but...

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Daily Goals

Daily Goals:
Things happen. We are blown by passing winds, caught up in problems not of our making, and we drift. When that happens, whether to individuals, institutions, or nations, we grow old. We forget who we are and why. Eventually we are overtaken by people (or organizations or cultures) that are younger, hungrier, or more driven than us. The only way to stay young, hungry, and driven is through periodic renewal, reminding ourselves of where we came from, where we are going, and why. To what ideals are we committed? What journey are we called on to continue? Of what story are we a part?

Parsha Questions

  1. Why do you think these two mitzvot were the last to be given to the Jewish people? 

  2. Which more mitzvot that are performed more regularly achieve the same outcome as hakhel?

  3. Have you ever been involved in the writing of a Sefer Torah? How did it feel (or how do you imagine it must feel)?

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