How American Presidents Re-enact the Torah’s Final Commandments

October 7, 2016 | Jonathan Sacks
About the author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician. He served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

In this week’s Torah reading of Vayeilekh, Moses—approaching the end of his life—gives the Israelites the Pentateuch’s final commandments. The first (known as Hakhel) is that every seven years the king should gather the people on the holiday of Sukkot and publicly read the Torah to them. The second, as understood by the rabbis, is for every individual to take part in the writing of a Torah scroll. While the first ritual is not mentioned explicitly elsewhere in the Bible, there are multiple instances, notes Jonathan Sacks, where something similar happens, and each constitutes a renewing of the ancestral covenant with God. With this in mind, Sacks explains why these are the last mitzvot in the Torah:

In these last two commands, we are taught what it is to be part of a spirit that has not died in 4,000 years and will not die so long as there is a sun, moon, and stars. God showed Moses, and through him us, how to become part of a civilization that never grows old. It stays young because it repeatedly renews itself. The last two commands of the Torah are about renewal, first collective, then individual.

Hakhel, the covenant-renewal ceremony every seven years, ensured that the nation would regularly rededicate itself to its mission. . . . [T]here is one place in the world where this covenant-renewal ceremony still takes place: the United States of America.

The concept of covenant played a decisive role in European politics in the 16th and 17th century, especially in Calvin’s Geneva and in Scotland, Holland, and England. Its longest-lasting impact, though, was on America, where it was taken by the early Puritan settlers and remains part of its political culture even today. Almost every presidential inaugural address—every four years since 1789—has been, explicitly or implicitly, a covenant-renewal ceremony, a contemporary form of Hakhel. . . .

If Hakhel is national renewal, the command that we should each take part in the writing of a new Torah scroll is personal renewal. It was Moses’ way of saying to all future generations: it is not enough for you to say, “I received the Torah from my parents (or grandparents or great-grandparents).” You have to take it and make it new in every generation. . . .

How precisely timed, therefore, and how beautiful, that at the very moment when the greatest of prophets faced his own mortality, God should give him, and us, the secret of immortality—not just in heaven but down here on earth. For when we keep to the terms of the covenant, making it new again in our lives, we live on in those who come after us, whether through our children or our disciples or those we have helped or influenced. We “renew our days as of old.” Moses died, but what he taught and what he sought lives on.

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