V’Zot Habracha & Hakhel: How The Torah Ends The Shmita Year by Rabbi Yonah Berman

“Joining together with our People, and remembering a place and time before we had our own land, we are being called to maintain the sanctity of humanity and creation.”

The final parsha in the Torah, V’Zot Habracha, is unique in that it is not read on a regular Shabbat. Rather, this third-shortest parsha, containing only 41 verses, is read on Simchat Torah as part of our celebrations concluding – and immediately restarting – the annual Torah reading cycle. It recounts blessings by Moses to the various tribes of Israel, his death overlooking the Land of Israel (which he was destined not to enter), and the Children of Israel’s mourning for our greatest leader. 

(This Shabbat’s reading instead focuses on portions related to the Festival of Sukkot).

It is actually right now and specifically this year that we are commanded to fulfill a unique and particularly beautiful mitzvah: Hakhel. Parshat Vayelech, which we read two weeks ago, instructs us to gather in Jerusalem during Sukkot following the conclusion of Shmita (Deut. 31:12):

Gather the nation: men, women and children and the stranger in your midst, so that they shall hear and so that they shall learn; and be in awe of God and keep all of the words and actions of this Torah.

In other words, once every seven years, the entire nation is to gather together as one at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to hear the words of the Torah. Many have pointed out how the commandment of Hakhel (“to gather”) is a re-enactment of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Just as all Jews were present for the giving of the Torah at Sinai, all Jews are commanded to join together to hear highlights of the Torah in Jerusalem. This is a beautiful way to remind everyone in the entire nation of its shared history, and of a shared obligation to remain loyal to the Torah and to one another.

While the formal Mitzvah of Hakhel is not practiced today, various groups have attempted to re-enact it with modern flair, even including Israel’s President and official Chief Rabbis. 

Perhaps there is added significance in the fact that Hakhel takes place at the end of the shmita year. We have spent the past year focusing on our responsibility to those whom we may forget during our everyday lives. It is too easy to ignore the plight of those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and it is too convenient to try and look past the negative impact our everyday behaviors can have on the environment. Yet by joining together with every member of our People, and by remembering a place and time before we had our own land, we are being called to maintain a sense of consciousness for the sanctity of humanity and creation. We are also given the opportunity to better preserve and protect God’s creations and God’s world.

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Rabbi Yonah Berman serves as Dean of Rabbinic Initiatives of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). He grew up in both the United States and Israel, gaining an appreciation for the depth and breadth of Jewish practice and thought. Rav Yonah loves learning and teaching Torah and has brought a variety of topics to various institutions in both the Orthodox and pluralistic worlds.