In one of his last instructions to the children of Israel, Moshe commands the people in the mitzvah of hakhel, a public reading of the Torah to take place once every seven years. All the people are to be present: “Gather the nation: the men, the women, and the children, and the stranger who is in your gates” (31:12). This list echoes the list in last week’s parasha of those who stood to enter into the covenant with God in the plains of Moad. The implication is clear: this public reading is reenactment and reaffirmation of the covenant.
Imagine if every town and city in the United States would gather each year on the 4th of July for a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Regardless of what people heard or understood, everyone would leave the experience with a sense of patriotism and connection to the founding documents and principles of the country. Similarly, when everyone gathered to hear the Torah being read, it was an act of connecting to God’s Torah and of affirming that it was this text that directed each individual’s life and defined the character of the people and the nation. The learning is experiential, not intellectual, and the goal was one of religious orientation and commitment: “That they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah.”
If this sounds familiar, it should. A public declaration of God’s word so that the people come to fear and obey God is how the Torah describes the revelation at Mt. Sinai: “Behold I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and so that they will also believe in you forever.” (Shemot 19:9). Two key words in this passage are “people” (am) and “hear” (yishmah), which find exact parallel in our parasha, “Gather the people (ha’am)… that they may hear (yishmau)”. The parallel goes further, for in Devarim the day of standing at Mt. Sinai is described three times as yom ha’kahal, the day of gathering (9:10, 10:4, 18:16). In fact, the mitzvah of hakhel directly echoes the words that Moshe used when he recounted the events of Mt. Sinai:
|Gather (hakhel) the people (ha’am) together, men and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates,|
that they may hear (yishmeu), and
that they may learn (yilmedu) to fear (li’yirah) the Lord your God… And that their children (bi’neichem)… may hear, and learn to fear (li’yirah) the Lord your God,
all the days (kol ha’yamim) as you live (chayim) in the land (ha’adamah) which you go over Jordan to possess it.
|Gather (hakhel) Me the people (ha’am) together, and|
I will make them hear (a’shmiem) my words,
that they may learn (yilmadum) to fear (li’yirah) Me
all the days (kol ha’yamim) that they shall live (chayim) upon the earth (ha’adama), and that they may teach their children (bi’neichem).
Hakhel is not only a reaffirmation of the covenant; it is a reliving of the yom ha’kahal, the day of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Rambam makes this point: “”Even converts who do not comprehend (the language) must direct their hearts and give their ear to hear (the hakhel recitation) with fear and awe and to rejoice in trembling as on the day that the Torah was given at Sinai… and one should see himself as if he was now commanded in the Torah and as if he heard it directly from God.” (Laws of Chagigah 3:6). To be present at the hakhel ceremony was to stand again at Sinai.
Twenty-five years ago, Judith Plaskow coined the phrase “standing again at Sinai” in her groundbreaking book by that name. In “Standing Again at Sinai,” Plaskow points out that Moshe tells the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai to “be prepared for three days, do not draw close to a woman.” (Shemot 19:15). This verse demonstrates – writes Plaskow – that the Torah was being given to the men and that the women were not part of the covenant, at least not directly so. She then goes on to call for a standing again at Sinai, a reclaiming and reshaping of the covenant by Jewish women today.
While Plaskow’s read is the pshat of those verses, the rabbis of the Talmud go out of their way to include women in the Sinai narrative. They stated that God’s directive to Moshe at Sinai to speak to “the house of Jacob” (beit Yaakov) refers specifically to the women, and that the demand that there be no sexual contact for the three days prior was to enable the women – not the men – to be ritually pure for the event.
However one reads the standing at Sinai in Shemot, there can be no question that in Devarim the Sinai event is understood to have involved the entire nation. The mitzvah of hakhel is to relive the yom ha’kahal, the day when everyone – men, women, and children – stood at Mt. Sinai. And it is to reaffirm the covenant with God made before they entered the land, a covenant that was made with “your children, your women, and the stranger in your camp” (29:9-10).
While the hakhel event occurred only once every seven years, there is a way in which we perform a mini-hakhel multiple times each week: through our communal reading of the Torah in the synagogue. The Torah is read on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays, times when as many people as possible can be present for the reading. The Talmud (Bava Kama 82a) relates that while aspects of this practice began at the time of Moshe, it took on its current form only in the time of Ezra, when Ezra delivered a public reading of the Torah to the people (Nehemia, ch. 8). Significantly, the verses there state that Ezra read it “before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding.” (8:2).
The trice-weekly reading of Torah lacks the drama and power of the hakhel reading and it may not be functioning as a full reenactment of the Sinaitic event with all its pyrotechnics. But it is nevertheless a regular connecting to the Torah and to the divine word. Because it is a quieter, smaller, and more modest event, it allows for a different type of connection, not just experiential, but also educational. Ezra read the Torah to “all that could hear with understanding,” and it was read “distinctly, and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (v. 8). It was this need for the people to understand that led to the institution of the meturgaman, the translator who would give a running rendition of the verses in the vernacular. The reading in the synagogue is thus a form of talmud Torah as much as it is a form of hearing and receiving the Torah.
The fact that Ezra included women in his public reading of the Torah demonstrates that it was critical to connect women not only to the experience of God’s word, but also to the meaning of those words, in other words, to the learning of Torah. This is consistent with the status and sanctity of Torah, which is in principle universalist and non-hierarchical in nature. Priesthood is limited to the sons of Aharon, kingship is limited to the descendants of David, but the Torah is available to all (Rambam, Talmud Torah 3:1). And the hierarchy of Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael, of man and woman, is trumped by the meritocracy of Torah study (Mishna Horiyot 3:8). I believe that this is the reason why according to the braitta (Megilah 23a), women and children can in principle receive an aliyah to the Torah, although they are normally assumed to be excluded from synagogue ritual. Why of all synagogue rituals are they included here? It is because the reading of the Torah is a standing again at Sinai, an event which includes all of Israel. And it is an act of a communal learning of Torah, and talmud Torah is open to all. While the Kohen, Levi, Yisrael hierarchy winds up reasserting itself in this context as well, the principle that all people are fundamentally included remains unchanged.
As we start to look towards Sukkot and Simchat Torah, when we will once again as a community celebrate our communal reading and completion of the Torah over the past year, let us commit that whenever we relive the receiving of the Torah, and whenever we connect to the learning and study of Torah, we do so as an entire community, men, women, and children, so that we may all be a part of the covenant and all have a part in God’s Torah.