At the end of seven years, at the time of the Shmittah year, during the festival of Sukkos … you shall read this Torah before all Yisroel. Gather together the people – men, women, even infants – and the converts in your city, so that they will hear and they will learn, and they will fear HaShem, your G-d, and be careful to perform the words of this Torah.
Over the past year, Torah observant farmers in the Land of Israel have had to deal with the complicated and seemingly-impractical laws of Shmittah – the Sabbatical year. The Torah mandates that the land must have a year of “rest,” in which both agricultural work and the merchandising of produce are forbidden. The word shmittah literally means cessation: the Jew’s involvement with physical labor, and with all the burdens and anxieties that accompany it, comes to a stop until the beginning of the next agricultural season.
The Shmittah year ends as it begins – with Rosh HaShonah, the Jewish New Year. Two weeks later, when the entire nation would come together in Jerusalem to conclude the cycle of pilgrim festivals with the holiday of Sukkos, the Jews gathered in the Temple courtyard to hear the king himself read from the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) before the entire assemblage of his nation. This was the mitzvah of hakheil.
What is the connection between the conclusion of the Shmittah year and the public recitation by the king? And why is the Book of Devarim singled out to the exclusion of the first four books of the Torah?
The sages have referred to the Book of Devarim by a different name: Mishneh Torah, literally the Repetition of the Law. Although many laws previously taught in the Torah are indeed repeated in Devarim, many others are not; many laws are taught there for the first time. The term “repetition,” therefore, seems an imperfect description of the Book of Devarim.
Rav Hirsch explains the necessity of any repetition at all. Many of the Torah’s laws, most notably the agricultural laws, together with business and civic laws, had little relevance during the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert. The festivals as well gained an agricultural context when the Jews entered their land that had not existed in the desert.
Consequently, as the Jews encamped on the east side of the Jordan River, Moses transmitted those laws yet untaught because of their limited practical application in the desert, and recapitulated those laws that would acquire a new dimension when the Jews began to settle their land.
Moreover, when the Jews had lived in the desert, theirs had been an existence of open miracles and the revealed presence of the Almighty. In that era, the commandments of the Torah did not serve as they do in our everyday lives – as the means of connecting to divinity that is concealed behind the veil of the natural world. For this reason, Moses had to “reteach” the Torah so that it could be fully understood and appreciated for its unique relevance to living a spiritual life while immersed in the responsibilities of a material world.
Herein lies the connection to the Sabbatical year. The Shmittah year was not a time of natural existence. It was a time of miraculous blessing, preceded by a double-harvest that allowed the people to involve themselves in spiritual pursuits without the distractions or worries of earning a living. To come back from that kind of extraordinary lifestyle to the mundane existence of plowing and reaping, the Jewish people required a kind of “refresher course” in practical spirituality.
For this reason the king would read from the Book of Devarim, reawakening the people to the changed reality that awaited them in the coming, post-Shmittah year, just as Moses had done when he originally addressed those same words to the Jewish nation before they entered the changed reality of their land for the very first time.
And for us, today, who don’t recognize the miracles of Shmittah, the mitzvah of hakheil reminds us that unlimited spiritual potential resides within every commandment, and that every mitzvah provides a priceless opportunity for us to unlock and to realize that potential.