Ki Tisa 5774 – Ritual vs Moral Sin in Het HaEgel, and the Nature of the Covenant with Israel

כָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ

Bracketed by the sections on Shabbat and the Mishkan, Chet HaEgel is the crescendo of the second half of Sefer Shemot. The story depicts a fall from a great height as the people, fresh from affirming their covenant with ‘א, create and worship a golden calf. Following this fall, Moshe descends from the mountain and shatters the Luchot HaEdut, the physical terms of the covenant[1]. The rest of Parashat Ki Tisa records the process of Moshe and Bnei Yisrael trying to recreate the covenant with ‘א, culminating in first the revelation to Moshe of what has become know as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy[2] and second the new terms of the Covenant.

The way that the texts regarding the Mishkan surround the story of the Egel makes it quite logical to think of the Mishkan as a command which atones for Chet HaEgel. Moreover, it also meets the problems manifest in Chet HaEgel head on. The need for a physical representation of ‘א’s Presence, which was lost when Moshe failed to come down from the mountain, is replaced by the Mishkan in general and by the Keruvim in specific, which serve the same function that the Egel was meant to serve[3]. More generally, the sin of the people represents a basic inability to follow ‘א’s commands, and thus throughout the building of the Mishkan, and all throughout Vayikra, the text repeatedly emphasizes that the people did as ‘א commanded (for example, Shemot 34:4; 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 43; and others). However, seeing the Mishkan as the fix for Chet HaEgel, rather than perhaps as a response to it, ignores the very important process of the 34th chapter of Sefer Shemot.

Shemot 34 describes the creation of a new covenant with ‘א, starting with the revelation of ‘א’s “attributes of mercy”, which explain the creation of a new covenant, and then going into the terms of the covenant, wherein ‘א goes over much of what was said in Parashat Mishpatim in Shemot 21-23. ‘א will guide Bnei Yisrael and fight their wars for them, Bnei Yisrael have to destroy the altars of Idolatry in Eretz Yisrael, etc. Notably, while much of this section if reminiscent of the statues of Parashat Mishpatim, there is one section that is copied almost exactly from Shemot 23. 34:18-26 reads as follows:

18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you-at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt. 19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a rnale as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. 20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every first-born among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed. 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign LoRD, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the LoRD your God three times a year. 25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning. 26 The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.[4]

Shemot 23:10-19 is starkly similar:

10 Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.13 Be on guard concerning all that I have told you. Make no mention of the names of other gods; they shall not be heard on your lips.14 Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: 15 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread-eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you-at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; 16 and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. 17 Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the LORD.1B You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of My festal offering shall not be left lying until morning. 19The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LoRD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The similarities between these two passages, and their respective contexts, tells us quite a bit about Chet HaEgel, but the differences tell us even more. First and foremost is the stark lack of a repetition of Shemot 21:1-23:9 before the passage in Ki Tisa. Those two and a half chapters, the majority of Parashat Mishpatim, form the bulk of the terms of the original covenant. The commandments of verses 23:10-18 are a ritualistic, ‘א-focused capstone to an otherwise essentially moralistic covenant. In Chapter 34 this moral foundation is missing; The focus is entirely on commandments that Man fulfills for ‘א. Analysis of one of these commandments in particular highlights this difference. The commandment of Shabbat appears in both 23:12, as “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed,” and 34:21, as “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time”, and the difference between them is startling. In 23:12 the commandment is accompanied by the explicit stating of its purpose, namely giving rest to slaves and work-animals. This is one of two places in Chumash where the moral aspect of Shabbat is emphasized[5]. In contrast, 34:21 has no explicit rationale. Where one pasuk specifically emphasizes morality, the other pasuk very noticeably does not. These commandments have been copied from the original covenant to the new one, and this tells us something incredible about the new covenant, and the nature of Chet HaEgel.

Chet HaEgel was not a moral sin. The people do not compromise on ethical values. The wronged party was not man but ‘א. This is obvious from the fact that really they are just worshiping an idol[6]. This is also seen from the effect of the sin. This does not mean the breaking of the tablets by Moshe or the slaughter of the transgressors at the hands of the Levi’im, but rather to the pericope of 33:7-11. In these verses, the “Tent of Meeting”[7] is moved outside the camp. Whereas generally ‘א’s presence rests in the midst of the people, it now stays beyond the boundaries of the camp, and that’s where Moshe has to go to speak with ‘א. Chet HaEgel specifically rejected the relationship between the people and ‘א that was forged at Sinai, and ‘א cannot tolerate His presence dwelling in their midst. This is specifically what the new covenant was coming to fix. The people have the ethical part of being ‘א’s nation down, they just need to work on the ‘א part.

Judaism has long been identified with repetitive and ritualistic actions. The Mishkan and all of its accompanying laws are a great example of this. This leads many people to protest, saying things like, “Isn’t it enough to just be a good person?” and “Morality is the important part anyway, right?”. While perhaps the main message of the Literary Prophets (Everything from Yeshayahu through Zekharia) is the importance of Morality, even over ritual, these protests miss the point of the Torah. The Torah was not given to make Man moral. Rather it expects man will be moral. The Torah itself attests to the fact that men can and will be moral in the absence of revelation[8], and that ‘א expects no less of us[9]. The Zohar goes so far as to suggest that if all that the Torah was meant for was to teach ethical lessons, then anyone in the world could have written it, perhaps even better than in its current form[10]. The Torah is more than just a book of moral instruction. The Torah is a book about how to live in the Presence of ‘א. While it’s true that ‘א’s Presence will not tolerate immoral behavior, living a godly life means going beyond simply being moral and moving into the realm of the Holy. Morality is the starting point of the Torah, rather than its end goal. Chet HaEgel demonstrated that Bnei Yisrael, while capable of being moral, had missed the fact that they were expected to be more, that they were , and are, expected to be a nation living in the Presence of ‘א.

 

[1] In Akkadian and Ugaritic texts ‘to break the tablet’ is a legal phrase meaning to cancel or nullify a contract.

[2] BT Rosh Hashanah 17b. For a comprehensive list of the different ways commentators have broken up the thirteen attributes, including some that include “visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” amongst the thirteen, see the Steinzalt edition of BT Rosh Hashanah.

[3] See the Rashbam on the purpose of the Egel, as well as Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, and Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah. It seems likely that the Egel, rather than replacing ‘א was meant to be seen as his resting place, much like the Keruvim. This explains why Aharon so readily agreed to make it, as well as why he says that the next day will be a celebration not for the Egel, but for ‘א. This explanation requires explaining Aharon’s statement of “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4) as referring to ‘א’s presence above the Egel, while the people’s simultaneous statement of the same is referring to the Egel itself. While this is difficult, especially in light of the plural nature of Aharon’s statement, it does seem to fit best with both the situation and the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] The other is in Sefer Devarim, verses 5:12-15, during the repetition of the Ten Commandments.

[6] For a differing view, see Rashi to 32:6 s.v. to dance, based on  Bereishit 39:17.

[7] The phrase “אהל מועד” normally refers the Mishkan, but it cannot mean that here due to the Mishkan not being built yet. Thus it is generally understood to mean Moshe’s personal tent, where he met with ‘א before the construction of the Mishkan.

[8] Malkitzedek was clearly considered righteous according to the Pshat, and the Midrash expands on this. Nimrod seems textually to have been considered righteous, though the midrashim say otherwise.

[9] This is implied by any story wherein we find punishment without revelation, such as the Flood narrative or the Tower of Bavel.

[10] Zohar, Parashat Beha’alotkha, 152a

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Parashat Vayera – The Covenantal Partner and The Individual

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְ׳הוָה

Parashat Vayera begins with ‘א’s appearing to Avraham as three men[1] in the Terebinths of Mamrei in order to give over the information that Sarah will give birth to a son, Yitzhak. The problem this immediately raises is that the visitation in chapter 18 follows close on the heels of the revelation in chapter 17, the main theme of which was the promise of Yitzhak’s birth. If Avraham has already been informed that Yitzhak is going to be born, then why does ‘א need to come announce it a second time? However, while the two passages share many similarities and are, to some degree, dependent upon each other, they also differ in many distinct ways, and close analysis of these differences shows that each of the passages expresses a very different perspective on the birth of Yitzhak and its meaning, both for ‘א and for Avraham.

The differences between Bereishit 17 and Bereishit 18 begin almost immediately[2]. Bereishit 17 contains the mitsvah of Brit Milah, circumcision (17:9-14), that is the sign of the covenant between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael, going all the way back to Avraham, a command that appears nowhere else in the Torah. It also includes the discussion of the covenant, and the fact that Yitzhak, not Yishmael, will be Avraham’s successor in the covenant (17:19-20), none of which is mentioned in Bereishit 18. The message of Yitzhak’s birth is given with a focus specifically on Avraham in chapter 17 (17:16, 19), even though Sarah will be the one pregnant, while in chapter 18 it is said specifically that Sarah will have a son (18:10). At no point in chapter 17 are we told the setting of the prophecy, while in chapter 18 a great deal is made of the fact that it is occurring at the tent, which is mentioned five times. To top it off, the chapters use different names for ‘א throughout, a strong differentiator. The passages are also clearly dependent on each other, in that Avraham is not referred to by name in chapter 18 until verse 6. Up to that point he is simply referred to by the pronoun “him” and it is only because this passage follows chapter 17 that we know who is being referred to[3]. But for the fact that the two passages share the pronouncement of the birth of Yitzhak, they would be two separate texts dealing with very separate stories.

Despite that, the two passages share many similarities. After briefly mentioning Avram’s age, the prophecy in chapter 17 begins with ‘א appears to Avram (17:1), using exactly the same phrase found at the beginning the next chapter. Bereishit 17:17 mentions that Avraham laughed, just as Sarah does in Bereishit 18:12-15. In both passages Avraham is predicted to give birth to great nations (17:16, 18:18). The two chapters seem in many ways to be telling the same story, and therefore we must answer why the same story is repeated twice in the Torah, one after the other.

Each of these stories forms the context for the announcing of Yitzhak’s birth, and there are certain hallmarks of that story, such as the disbelief of an elderly parent-to-be, that occur in each passage. But each of these stories forms a very different context and therefore lends to the birth of Yitzhak a very different significance.

In Bereishit 17, the announcement of the birth is in context of the covenant between ‘א and Avraham. It is for this reason that it includes the discussion of the covenant and the command for its sign, the Brit Milah. Yitzhak is not primarily Avraham and Sarah’s son but ‘א’s next covenantal partner (as opposed to Yishmael), who happens to be born to Avraham and Sarah. This is also why there is an emphasis on Yitzchak being born to Avraham, as opposed to Sarah, for Avraham is ‘א’s current covenantal partner. Thus even Avraham’s place in the story is subordinate to the focus on the covenant and ‘א’s greater plan, rather than being about Avraham himself.

In Bereishit 18, the focus is on Sarah and Avraham as individuals, as an elderly barren couple instead of as the Bearers of the Covenant. Thus, the emphasis is on Sarah having a child at least as much as on Avraham, which fits with the way the emphasis is on Sarah being barren in Bereishit 11:30, as opposed to Avraham. Moreover, where in Bereishit 17 the need for a covenantal partner to succeed Avraham would require Yitzhak’s birth, regardless of Avraham and Sarah’s personal merit, Bereishit 18 puts a strong emphasis on their personal merit, emphasizing the way Avraham rushed to greet the guests (18:2), the way both Sarah and Avraham helped prepare food for the guests (18:4-8), and the fact that Avraham would teach his descendant to follow ‘א’s path, to be righteous and just (18:19). Bereishit 18 depicts the birth of Yitzhak as the granting of a child to a couple who had long been childless and who, both because of who they were and who they would teach him to be, could not be more deserving.

‘א acts on the level of his great historical purposes, where sometimes the personal merit of individuals is ignored for the good of ‘א’s plan. But he also interacts on the subtle, individual, stage, where He exists in relation to individuals, and their merit is the deciding factor. These two approaches each surface at various times throughout Tanakh. The great teshuvah movement of King Yoshiyahu ends tragically without ‘א relenting from his decree, as Yoshiyahu was told would be the case by the prophetess Huldah (Melakhim II 22). By contrast, in Yehezkal 18 it is repeatedly stated that all that matters is a person’s personal merit, the things they have done right and the things they have done wrong. These two approaches are manifest in Bereishit 17 and 18, respectively. Bereishit 17 is all about the fact that ‘א has a plan that involves Avraham and his successor, Yitzhak. Bereishit 18 is all about the fact that Sarah and Avraham personally merit a child.

This differentiation is emphasized through the way that the two chapters use different names for ‘א. Bereishit 17 refers to ‘א as Elokim, the name associated with divine justice, with ‘א’s orderly plan for creation, while Bereishit 18 refers to ‘א as YHVH, the name associated with divine compassion, with ‘א’s intimate involvement with His world.

It is important for us to understand these two ways in which ‘א interacts with the world, for the sake of understanding ‘א and understanding History. But it is more important for the sake of our understanding our place in History and the significance of our own actions. Bereishit 17 asks us to understand that we are players on the historical stage, that we participate in ‘א’s plan and further His goals. On this level, it is not our personal merit that makes us significant, but the fact we are ‘א’s chosen covenantal partners, and the incredible responsibility this asks us to bear. Simultaneously, we are individuals who are asked to be kind and gracious, piously dedicated and personally responsible. Existing on the world stage does not exempt us from our local responsibilities. Participation in the historical covenant does not mean that we can be rude to the man on the street; in fact, quite the opposite. The way justice and righteousness play out on the personal stage bear great significance for the realization of ‘א’s historical goals (Bereishit 18:19).

[1] The most likely explanation of the nature of the appearance (18:1) seems to be that it is constituted by the visit of the angels. They are constantly referred to as men (18:2, 16, 22, etc.), despite being angels (19:1), as this is how they appeared to Avraham. He only became aware that they were not ordinary men when the primary angel spoke as ‘א (18:13). Such is the explanation of the Rashbam. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet’s explanation here.

[2] I owe much of the differentiation between the two passages to R’ Yonatan Grossman’s essay “News of the Birth of Yitzchak.”

[3] This dependence is picked up the midrash, quoted by Rashi on 18:1, that says ‘א was visiting Avraham when he was sick after the circumcision as the mitsvah of Bikkur Holim, Visiting the Sick. In theory, the visitation by the angels could have come at any time, it did not need to be immediately after the circumcision, but the language highlights the fact that the two passages are in fact highly connected.

Parashat Nitsavim-Vayelekh – Following Man vs Following God

הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ

The joint parashot of Nitsavim-Vayelekh begin Moshe’s final farewell to the nation, including a formal covenant, the commandment of Teshuvah, his transferal of leadership to Yehoshua, the commandment of the mitsvah of Hak’hel, and the writing of a Torah scroll to be kept by the Aron. While not the most dramatic or stirring of these events, the appointment of Yehoshua presents us with problematic doublings and contradictions which, when given serious consideration, not only explain or cast new light on various passages in Sefer Devarim and beyond, they also point toward the Torah’s radical conception of leadership and responsibility.

The passage at the beginning of Devarim 31 depicts Moshe telling the people that he will not be leading them any longer, and that Yehoshua will be leading them in his stead. However, that’s not quite what it says.

1 And Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. 2 And he said to them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in; and the Lord has said to me: You shall not cross over this Jordan. 3 The Lord your God, He will cross over before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall dispossess them; and Joshua, he shall cross over before you, as the Lord has spoken.

The first thing that stands out here is that Moshe present’s two reasons for why he will not be leading Bnei Yisrael anymore, (1) that he is too old and therefore physically he is no longer up to the challenge of leadership, and (2) that ‘א has said to him that he shall not cross the Jordan. Either one of these reasons would be sufficient, and certainly once the second has been stated, as it was in Bamidbar 20:12, the first is not only unnecessary but also not quite correct, as ‘א could certainly have strengthened Moshe if he was to continue leading. Moving on from there, we see that in verse three, parallel to these two reasons, there are in fact two leaders. Moshe tells the people that in contrast to himself, their former leader, that the new leader will “cross over before you,” “הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.” However, he uses this phrase not once but twice, by both ‘א and Yehoshua. Moshe seems to say that his role will be filled by both ‘א and Yehoshua. This is, to say the least, odd, and it requires explanation. This explanation can be found in the appointment of Yehoshua in Bamidbar 27.

The twenty-seventh chapter of Sefer Bamidbar starts with the story of the Daughters of Tselophehad, which is really attached to the census that preceded it, and then begins something new, the question of who will lead after Moshe.

12 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Ascend Har HaAvarim, and behold the land which I have given to the children of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered; 14 because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.’–These are the waters of Merivat-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. 15 And Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.’ 18 And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Take you Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; 19 and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. 20 And you shall put of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken. 21 And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.’

This section (Bamidbar 27:12-21) is composed of two distinct passages (27:12-14 and 27:15-21). It is important to note that these are in fact two separate passages[1] (there’s even a break between them), because this pair of passages correspond exactly to the dual pairs of reasons and leaders in Devarim 31. In the first passage, ‘א tells Moshe that he will not be going into the Land of Israel, and, importantly, no replacement leader is mentioned. In the second passage, Moshe asks ‘א to choose a person to replace him after he dies, in order that the nation not be “as sheep which have no shepherd.” This second passage also uses the same language of “going out” and “coming in” (27:17, 21) that Moshe uses in Devarim 21:2, where he says that the reason that he needs a replacement is his physical inability to lead. This dichotomy matches the two reasons and leaders given in Devarim 21, one where ‘א tells Moshe that his leadership is over, and therefore ‘א will lead, and one where Moshe feels he is too old to lead and asks for a replacement, Yehoshua.

This is tied into the hotly debated understanding of the mitsvah[2] regarding appointing a king from Devarim 17.

14 When you have come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you shall possess it, and shall dwell in it; and you shall say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’; 15 you shall in any wise set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brethren shall you set king over you ; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.

Verse 15 certainly does seem to say that the nation is commanded to appoint a king over them, but it is preceded by verse 14, which seems to indicate that the commandment would only apply in the case where Bnei Yisrael indicate that they want a king, like the nations around them, meaning that it is optional. This debate is expressed in the Sifri[3], the halakhic midrash on Sefer Devarim.

“And you shall say, Let us appoint over ourselves a king’ – R’ Nehorai says: This is a matter of disgrace to Israel, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:7) ‘For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them.’ R’ Yehuda said: But it is a mitzva from the Torah for them to request a king for themselves, as it is written, ‘You shall surely appoint over yourselves a king.’ So why were they punished for this in the days of Shemuel? Because it was too early for them to ask. ‘Like all the nations around us’ – R’ Nehorai said, They did not ask for a king for any other reason but so that he would institute idolatry, as it is written (Shemuel I 8:20), ‘And we, too, shall be like all the nations, and our king will judge, and he will go out before us and fight our wars.” (Sifri Shoftim 156)

This debate is picked up in the Rishonim both in their enumerations of the mitsvot and in their commentaries on the Torah. Stepping back to the Tannaim, it is important to note the proof text R’ Nehorai brings indicating that having a king is less than ideal. “For it is not you whom they have despised, but Me whom they have despised from ruling over them” (Shemuel I 8:7). This verse from Shemuel I depicts ‘א stating that desiring a king is not simply choosing from amongst types of human authorities, but choosing a human leader over Divine Authority[4], which is a fairly strong argument for the opinion that having a king is optional at best.

Taking that back to the anointment of Yehoshua, Moshe’s request for a replacement is granted by ‘א, not initiated by Him, which would indicate that in an ideal sense there was never supposed to be any replacement for Moshe, and the people were supposed to be directly under ‘א’s leadership, with no human leadership in between, as is the case in Sefer Shoftim, after Yehoshua’s death, where there is no centralized national leadership. Unfortunately, the people failed to live up to the responsibility of guiding themselves and their society according to the Torah, and so eventually the institution of a King became necessary. Ideally, there was never supposed to be a king, but once there was a need for a king, there was an ideal way for the king to act. The king was never supposed to displace ‘א’s leadership, but his leadership was supposed to encourage the people to follow the Torah. Hence Divrei HaYamim I 29:23, “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king,” where it’s made clear that the seat of human authority is also meant to be a representation of Divine authority. However, Bnei Yisrael failed in that too, as is clear from most of Sefer Melakhim. This idealization of human leadership as an expression of divine leadership is depicted in  Devarim 31:23, “And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said: ‘Be strong and courageous; for you will bring the children of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you.” Yehoshua’s strong leadership will be a function of ‘א being with him.

Reading this back into Sefer Devarim sheds new light on many passages. Devarim 17:15-20 depicts the specific laws of the King which put a strong emphasis on the fact that the king must be of the brethren of Israel, and greatly restrict the amount of wealth, horses, and wives that the King may acquire. On the surface these laws would seem designed to keep the king from becoming too arrogant and becoming corrupted by his wealth and power but, based on the above, this would seem to be part of the larger goal of emphasizing that the king is just another member of Bnei Yisrael under the Kingship of ‘א.

Another passage that takes on fascinating new meaning in this light is part of Moshe’s final pep-talk to the people in Devarim 30.

11 For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 14 But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.

The basic message of this passage is that the people are capable of keeping the Torah, that they need not worry, and cannot claim, that it is too hard for them to keep. However, the specific messages are that the Torah is not in heaven, where the people would need someone to go get it for them, nor is it across the sea, which would bar the people from going to get it. These two impassable obstacles, the breadth of the sea and the height of heaven, were those that were crossed by Moshe as he split the sea and ascended Har Sinai. Thus the message of this passage is not just that the people have the capability to keep the Torah, but more specifically that they do not need Moshe, or his replacement, in order to do so. They themselves are up to the challenge.

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing to appreciate in light of this idea is the mitsvah of Hak’hel (31:10-13). Every seven years, when the people are all in Jerusalem for Sukkot, they are to gather around the king as he reads to them from the Book of the Torah[5], in order that they learn to revere ‘א and follow His Torah. This ceremony is essentially a reenactment of the Revelation on Har Sinai, and there are numerous textual and thematic parallels indicating this[6]. However, it is also parallel to the covenant ceremony described in parashat Ki Tavo that was yet to be enacted on Har Eval, which itself has strong textual and thematic parallels to the Revelation on Har Sinai[7]. The two covenants, that of Har Sinai and Har Eval, are each thought of as the people accepting ‘א’s Torah upon themselves, and they are that. In this vein, Hak’hel reenacts the giving of the law, with the King standing in place of Moshe and Yehoshua[8]. However, the two events were each also the forging of a covenant, and this covenant is a direct relationship[9] between ‘א and the Nation of Israel. Taken in this light, the mitsvah of Hak’hel is not about gather every 7 years for the people to brush up on their knowledge of the laws, but in order for them to reaffirm that they are ruled not by the king but by ‘א. This also helps explain why every member of Israel is supposed to be there, even children who cannot understand the law but can certainly grasp that ‘א is in charge.

Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Judaism has gone from a centralized, nation-oriented religion to a much more personalized, individual-centered religion[11]. We have returned to the status quo of Sefer Shoftim, and we must not fail as Bnei Yisrael did then.The mitsvah of Hak’hel arises every year as we approach Rosh HaShanah. More than it is a day of judgement, Rosh HaShanah is about the declaration and affirmation of ‘א’s Kingship[11]. Rosh Hashanah is a time where we take upon ourselves the responsibility of a direct relationship with’א, with all the culpability that entails. Bnei Yisrael in Sefer Shoftim were incapable of taking ‘א’s Kingship upon themselves, and so they required a human king. We cannot be vicariously religious. Communities require leaders , but they are meant to help guide us, not to be intermediaries between us and ‘א. There are no “holy men” in Judaism, only individuals, and thus no individual can throw off his responsibility to ‘א by saying that they are not a “holy man.” The Torah commands Bnei Yisrael to turn to their leaders for guidance only when they cannot determine what they should do (Devarim 17:8), otherwise we must turn to ‘א. On Rosh HaShanah, as in the mitsvah of Hak’hel, we reaffirm the covenant we have with ‘א, and recognize the responsibility that is thus incumbent upon us, and only upon us[12]. Only in this manner do we return to ‘א and to who we are meant to be.

[1] For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the two passages and, more particularly, the grammatical and chronological issues involved in understanding the first passage, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] For more on this discussion, see this excellent essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[3] A similar formulation is also found in a beraita, Sanhedrin 20b, and Tosefta Sanhedrin ch. 4.

[4] The alternative was that the people in asking for a king were simply rejecting Shemuel the Prophet as their leader, but ‘א’s statement makes it clear that ‘א’s Prophet is not a leader in and of himself, but rather a mouthpiece, a vehicle for the expression of Divine Authority.

[5] There are a variety of opinions as to what was actually contained in this torah, as reading the entirety of the Torah would be quite difficult in practice. See the commentaries on this passage for more details on the various opinions.

[6] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Menachem Leibtag.

[7] For more on that, see this essay by R’ Tamir Granot.

[8] See Hizkuni on Devarim 31:11.

[9] Peshat in Shemot 20 is certainly that ‘א spoke all ten of the commandments directly to the people, but it is possible to suggest otherwise, and the forging of the covenant from the beginning of Shemot 19 through Shemot 24 does seem to be done via Moshe. However, the covenant is repeatedly affirmed and accepted not by Moshe, but by the people (19:8 and 24:7, for example).

[10] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Berakhot, 8a.

[11] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Rosh HaShanah, 16a.

[12] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, 17a.