The weekly readings at the end of the Torah are generally brief, yet each contains significant material. This week’s portion begins as Moses finishes recounting the laws of the Torah to the Israelite people, and preparations begin for the transference of leadership from Moses to Joshua.
We can hardly imagine the anxiety that those gathered around Moses must have experienced. After all, this was the generation born in the desert; they had known no other leader for 40 years. Moses was a political, prophetic, and even priestly leader; despite the progressive decentralizing of the social structure of the nascent Israelite community, the symbolic presence of Moses must have remained a powerful, even overwhelming, force.
Of the many tasks Moses had to execute on behalf of the community, perhaps none was more difficult or sensitive as facilitating the transition of power and leadership. Even as the community must have intuited the inevitability of Moses’ death and the necessity of succession, so too must the people have feared what lay ahead. How could they be assured that there would be continuity between the form and content of the community as they had known it under Moses and the community as it would evolve after his death?
It is exactly at this juncture that the Torah depicts the instructions regarding the transmission of the words of God as revealed in the teachings of Moses. “Moses wrote this law, and delivered it to the priests of the tribe of Levi who carried the ark of the Covenant of the Lord. Moses commanded them thus: At the end of every seven years, at the time fixed as a year of release, at the festival of Sukkot, when all Israel will appear before the Lord in the place which God shall choose, you will read all this Instruction [Torah] before all Israel within their hearing.” (Deuteronomy 31:9-11)
The recitation of the Torah every seven years as envisioned in this passage raises some curious historical questions. Is this prescription a supplement to, or a substitute for, what we now know as the weekly Torah reading? Or is it a unique prescription that intends that the public reading of the Torah in its entirety be restricted to the Sukkot of the Sabbatical Year?
While we cannot answer these questions with authority, we might suppose that the description of the reading was intended to represent a seven-year cycle of recommitment, in which the community renewed its fidelity to the covenant with God through the affirmation of the Torah text.
Thus some of the anxiety inherent in the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua may have been alleviated by the certainty that the community was bound together, and the leaders were bound by a common sacred text. Continuity could be ensured by defining the law of the community as the law of the Torah, and not the law of the leader.
In addition, by placing the custody of the text in the hands of the priests — and not in the hands of Joshua — Moses suggests a stability that derives from the continuity implicit in the priestly line. Political leaders may come and go, chosen by God and removed by God, but the priestly line is passed on through birth.
This concern is reflected in a second passage of this week’s portion: “…Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord thus: Take this book of Instruction [sefer hatorah hazeh] and put it by the side of the ark…” (31:25-26)
In this juxtaposition of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, we see once more the concern of the writers to ensure continuity at this time of transition. The people that Moses has led became a people at Sinai, accepting the Torah; the community that Moses has shaped has organized itself around the Torah. The generations to come will be rooted in, responsive to, and responsible for that same Torah.
Like our ancestors at the time of Moses, we worry about living in a period of transition and change. This week’s portion reminds us that whatever form our plans and programs may take, the content must continue to be based on Torah — on knowledge of our classical religious literature and in commitment to living in faithfulness to the imperatives of the Torah tradition.