PARASHAT VAYELECH: The initial foundations of teshuva

This is not a time of self-flagellation, but our chance to take a realistic look at with what spiritual food we nourish our soul.

‘WHERE DO we stand in life? Do our actions actually correlate with the values we uphold?’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHERE DO we stand in life? Do our actions actually correlate with the values we uphold?’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The last portions of Deuteronomy, which complete the five books of the Torah, all focus on the Jewish people’s farewell from Moses. Moses, the nation’s first leader, who brought us out of Egypt and led us for 40 years through the desert, says goodbye to the people on the eastern border of the Land of Israel and passes the leadership baton to his student, Joshua ben Nun.
This farewell was complicated. It involved blessings, commandments, warnings and guidelines. Among other things, Moses writes the Torah and presents it to the priests (kohanim), commanding them to place the scroll within the “holy of holies” in the ark, and then in the Temple.
The Torah scroll had an additional, less known, but not less important role. We read about this in the portion of Vayelech. Once in seven years, on the close of the Sabbatical (Shmita) year, the entire Jewish nation would come to the Temple on Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) and participate in the Hakhel ceremony, the focal point of which was the king reading selected portions from the Torah:
“At the end of seven years... in the Festival of Sukkot, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears... in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31:10-12).
This was, in fact, a large-scale ceremony of mass repentance. People whose lives had swept them in different directions, not necessarily by choice, heard the Torah reading from the king and “recalculated their destination – to a more moral and spiritual existence.”
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, author of the Kli Yakar Torah commentary (Eastern Europe, 1540-1619), noticed the double date on which the Hakhel ceremony was held: Sukkot at the end of the Shmita year. This cannot be coincidental. He claims that the Shmita year is an appropriate background for the repentance ceremony of Hakhel.
In an agricultural society, the Shmita year is an inconceivable social revolution. During this year there are no rich and no poor, no landowners and no non-landowners. The crops are ownerless and every man is permitted to take from the fields according to his needs, but no more. If so, says Rabbi Luntschitz, during the Shmita year there is no fighting, because fights and disputes result from social differences and economic rifts. During the Shmita year “everyone is equal, and this is the matter of peace.”
Also on Sukkot, when all Jews move out of their homes and live in the Sukkah – a temporary home – for seven days, the Sukkah equalizes all social groups. That is why it is called Sukkat Shalom. The Four Species that we take on Sukkot symbolize the unity between all parts of the Jewish nation.
In order to repent – to do hazara b’teshuva – summarizes Rabbi Luntschitz, we need preparation, and Hakhel teaches us the appropriate preparation – peace between all people.
It is no coincidence that Vayelech is read every year on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a Shabbat known as Shabbat Shuva, according to the Prophet Hosea: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,” which is read in the Haftarah portion.
The days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance – Aseret Yemei Teshuva – because we focus on repentance during this time. A new year has started, and this is our opportunity for introspection. This is not a time of self-flagellation, but our chance to take a realistic look at where we are standing in life; in what we are truly interested, with what spiritual food we nourish our soul and do our actions actually correlate with the values we uphold.
The Hakhel ceremony reminds us of the initial foundations of teshuva: social improvement, benevolence and kindness, concern for our fellowmen and peace. When we direct our vast efforts into doing good, between Man and his fellowman, and between Man and God, we will, with God’s help, have a wonderful and blessed new year.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.