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D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:11 You shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears.
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Every seventh year, during the festival of Sukkot at the end of the sabbatical year, the priests and elders of Israel are to "gather the people -- men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities" (D'varim 31:12, NJPS). Everyone is to come together so that they may be present for the seven-year public reading of the Torah in Jerusalem, Moshe instructs, so that "they may hear and so learn to revere the L-RD your G-d and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching" (ibid., NJPS). TheBekhor Shor tells us that "in the sabbatical year, when there is no agricultural work, they are all free to come to Jerusalem and hear the Torah." This is not just a reading, for entertainment or for study, this reading has a very specific purpose, as we shall find out later.
You may notice that your (English translation) Bible uses the phrase "in their hearing", or "aloud" for the way the reading is to be conducted. This is the last word in the verse, : the preposition , 'in'; , the plural of , "an ear", in construct form; , the 3rd mp possessive pronoun, 'their'; so, literally (as we have above), "in their ears." Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner explain that "'in their ears' is an idiom and denotes that Joshua and the later Israelite leaders should read the Torah so that the people would hear what it contains." It is important that the reading should be easily and clearly heard by everyone who is gathered. The Sages of the Talmud tell us that "they erect a wooden dais in the Temple court" (b. Sotah 41a) to improve the acoustics so that the reader can speak above everyone's heads and his voice travels further.
Our text has historically given rise to two questions: firstly who is to read the Torah? And, secondly, what exactly does "this Torah" mean? The first question arises because in the previous verse Moshe is speaking to the priests and elders - "Moshe instructed them as follows" (D'varim 31:10, NJPS) - yet the verb in this command - , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to call, proclaim, read (Davidson) - is singular. How did you (pl.) become you (sg.)?Rashi says that it was the king who would read the Torah; Gersonides extends that by adding that "when there is no king, whoever is regarded as the greatest person in the generation, for example, the high priest, or the head of the Sanhedrin, should read." Gunther Plaut explains that "at one time was a priest like Ezra (see Nehemiah 8:1-5) or the high priest, at other times a king like Josiah (2 Kings 23:2)." The Mishnah reports that King Agrippa stood up and read the portions from D'varim (m. Sotah 8:7). Jeffrey Tigay looks behind who actually reads to see whose responsibility it is, commenting that "since Moshe is addressing the priests and elders he presumably means that it is they who must read or arrange for its reading."
The second question is a little more involved. The first and most obvious answer is provided by the same Mishnah passage as above and details six or so passages from the book of D'varim, which were customarily read. The historical passage referencing King Josiah simply says that "he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the L-RD" (2 Kings 23:2, ESV), which is traditionally assumed to be the book of D'varim. Tigay comments that "all of D'varim can be read aloud in three to four hours. According to the talmudic sources, the reading, termed 'the king's lection', consisted of a few selections from the book, but there is no reason to so limit the meaning." Another track altogether is taken by RabbiHirsch, who points to later in the chapter where Moshe instructs the Levites to "take this book of Teaching and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the L-RD your G-d, and let it remain there" (D'varim 31:26, NJPS). He then comments that "this sefer Torah was placed in the ark next to the tablets of the law and one must assume that although entering the Holy of Holies was normally prohibited, this public reading of the Torah on the seven-yearly day of Hak'heyl must have been considered a explicit commandment, and so for this purpose entering the Holy of Holies [on a day other than Yom Kippur] was permitted."
Sefer HaChinuch wants us to be certain why this command is so important: "By the Torah the children of Israel are set apart from every nation and tongue ... As a result of this [reading] they will come to tell of the greatness of its eminence and the glory of its worth. Thus all will acquire a yearning for it in their heart; and with yearning for it they will learn to know the Eternal Lord and will merit to attain good reward. Then 'the L-rd will rejoice in His handiwork' (Psalm 104.31)." Ronald Clements puts that in different words: "Just as worship was an occasion to recall the providential case of G-d in the past, so also the reading of the law was a way of ensuring that Israel remained mindful of its proper response in the present."1 Keeping the Torah current in the minds of the people is essential, explains Christopher Wright, who asks, "what use would there be in the law being accessible and intelligible if it were lost, forgotten or otherwise became unknown?"2
The timing of the reading, its location in the annual calendar, is no mistake either. As the Bekhor Shor explained earlier, at the end of the sabbatical year with no work to be done on the land, everyone is free to come up to Jerusalem, thus maximising the audience. Wright underlines the importance of the timing: "Read in the sabbatical year, when debts are cancelled, and at the feast of Tabernacles, in the mood of harvest-time gratitude to G-d "the law would forever be heard alongside the memories of historical redemption and in the midst of rejoicing at the generosity of G-d's grace.3 What is going on here? Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a "dramatic performance in liturgy of its distinctive identity as an antidote to the threats that will undo that identity."4 Rehearsing the foundational identity construction document together as a people, in a significant time-slot in the days of both remembering G-d's goodness in the past and experiencing the joy of celebrating the goodness of His provision in the present, bolsters and reinforces the Israelite identity in the face of the very real threats that could destroy it.
We need to see this as a multi-generational project. Everyone has been assembled - "men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities" (D'varim 31:12, NJPS) - and the covenant, with its benefits and responsibilities is being rehearsed so that everyone is reminded of exactly where they stand. As Brueggemann puts it, "the new land of promises is to be revisioned - generation after generation - as a different kind of land marked by covenant requirements as a condition of covenant blessing."5 As each old generations fades, new generations are brought into the family business and take their place as partners in the national enterprise: chosen and called by G-d, with responsibility for carrying out His mission. In other words, as Patrick Miller explains, "telling the story and what it means for their lives is the way the community of faith transmits to the next generation the faith and direction by which they have lived."6
What stories are we telling as followers of Yeshua? Working from Yeshua's own template, parables and simple stories work well; they communicate both the love and care that Father G-d has for us that Yeshua reached out to us with His amazing offer to join His kingdom and find atonement and forgiveness in Him. We show our respect for and belief in the past by honouring our family commitment to observe and celebrate the L-rd's feasts and festivals, using them as opportunities to connect the past with G-d's current every-day provision for His people. We tell the crucial stories of Yeshua's ministry, culminating in His "one sacrifice for sins for all time" (Hebrews 10:12, NASB), shaped and explained by the Passover narrative: "when I see the blood I will pass over you" (Shemot 12:13, NASB). We underpin Yeshua's teaching about the resurrection - "those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:29, NASB) - with the words of the prophet Daniel: "those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2, NASB). We affirm Yeshua's invitation, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28, NASB) with Isaiah's exhortation that "those who wait for the L-RD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles" (Isaiah 40:31, NASB).
How can we be sure that the next generation knows that we are serious about our faith and that it has a real value and call for them as well? Not by berating and lecturing, but by living and sharing; by showing the faith and hope that we have in the joy that overflows in our hearts. This is our witness to Yeshua, that the "the Son of righteousness has risen with healing in His wings; when we go forth and skip about like calves from the stall" (Malachi 4:2, altered).
1. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 1041.
2. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 295.
3. - Wright, page 296.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 272.
5. - Brueggemann, page 273.
6. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 222.
Further Study: Joshua 8:33-35; Isaiah 60:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:15-17
Application: If reading the Torah is part of our witness to Yeshua, how can we do it more often and more seriously? What could you do to tell the story of your faith generously and joyfully to the next generation?
Comment - 11:23 05Sep21 Joshua VanTine: Thank you for this stirring drash on the precipice of a new year. May the intent of our heart be that He creates in us a clean heart and renews a right spirit within us to live in the power of the love of HaShem inspiring the next generations desire to cling to HaShem through Mashiach Yeshua of Nazareth.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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