In this week’s Torah reading Moses presents an idea that is designed to both establish faith in God and bring a knowledge of the law to the Israelites.
“Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel…” (Deut.31:1) These are the opening words of the final address to the Israelites before they enter the new land…. And the opening of one of the shortest portions in Torah … only 31 verses. In keeping with that fact, this week I will also attempt to keep my comments very brief.
God tells Moses to “[write] down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness….” (Deut. 31:19) Then Moses tells the people that this Teaching will be read to all the people – men, women, children, and all the strangers in the land. The reading will take place every seven years as the people gather for the Feast of Booths. It is done so that all the greatest number of people may “hear and so learn to revere the Eternal your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Eternal you God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 31:12-13)
My first question is … What is included in the “Teaching” that Moses reads to the Israelites?
Richard Elliot Friedman in his Commentary on the Torah (p. 660) states that the Teaching does not include the entire Torah. Most modern Torah scholars believe that the five books were not compiled until the rabbinic period.- hundreds of years later. Friedman believes that the Teaching included most of the law code that begins in Deuteronomy 12 and ends in Deuteronomy 26. He also feels that it probably included the Blessings and Curses found in chapter 28.
In the days of the Jerusalem Temple, the pilgrimage holidays attracted the greatest number of people. By reading this Teaching in its entirety every seven years, the teaching was reaching all generations … including the youth who did not experience the giving of the law at Sinai. This reading helped keep the people’s faith in God; while, also focusing on the importance of the laws.
Obviously, at the present time this “Teaching” is not read in this manner. However, with the advent of mass printing, the Teaching is available to every household … every person … in every corner of the world. But, is the Teaching reaching all the people?….. Most definitely not, most copies of the Torah remain on a shelf – unopened – all year long.
I feel this is one of the greatest problems facing today’s Jewish communities…. People consider themselves “Jewish.” But, really don’t know what it means to be Jewish. They know about the Passover Seder and the Hannukah candles…. They know that Saturday is Shabbat … but don’t treat the day any differently than any other day…. Very few know anything about the 613 commandments of Torah. When the children grow older, many don’t have any formal contact with Jewish law or traditions. In many cases, as this second and third generation engages with the assimilated world, their Jewish identity is lost.
This is a problem that has been discussed for generations… without any real solutions.
However, maybe there are solutions. Our weekly Torah study sessions provide a small number of interested congregants with the knowledge of this Teaching. And, our religious schools provide the basics to those who are involved…. But, we are only reaching a part of our total Jewish community. Maybe we should follow the lead of Moses. We could attempt to assemble the people … all the people … members of both organized congregations; as well as. non-members on a special day – in a special place – and present a special message. In today’s internet/social media world… this special place could be a combination of both physical and online locations. I can’t see the entire law (Teaching) being read…. But, on this day a focus could be placed on a message of a pride from that comes from being part of a Jewish community. The message could also include a discussion of some major mitzvot that are seen as important to the community. If specific mitzvot are chosen for a community, region, or maybe the nation… these could form the basis for a year long effort to increase Jewish awareness…. I don’t know how successful it would be in today’s over-programmed world…. But, maybe, it’s worth a try. After all, this week’s Torah text tells us that the reading of the Teaching may help stop the “curses” of an unfaithful Israel.
With this message, I also want to wish you and your families L’shana Tova …. And an easy fast this Yom Kippur.