Raising the Torah up High – Rav Yonatan
This week’s parsha describes a ceremony of “blessings and curses” which was to be performed once the nation had entered Eretz Yisrael. With half the tribes assembled on one mountain and the other tribes atop the opposite one, the Levi’im down below made clear the Torah’s stance on a long list of prohibitions. These include illicit relationships, misleading behavior of various kinds and the construction of idols. The common thread woven through this list would appear to be that all these sins are committed in private. In order to counteract the fact that such a sinner may believe that he will never be discovered and will thus go unpunished, the Torah places a curse upon one who transgresses these prohibitions.
The last statement in this list is somewhat puzzling:
“Cursed be he who will not uphold the words of this Torah to observe them, and all the people shall say, Amen” (Devarim 27:26)
To what exactly does his passuk refer? Rashbam, following the pattern described above, explains that this last verse refers to all sins committed in private. Yes, the Torah has listed a variety of these explicitly; this last passuk aims to curse perpetrators of any sin for which they had hoped to avoid being caught and punished
Rashi states that this verse encapsulates the entire Torah and at this point Am Yisrael accepted it upon themselves with an oath. This means that shortly after Am Yisrael entered the Land, a ceremony was performed which culminated in a form of renewed acceptance of the Torah. This fits in with the general theme of the opening chapters of Sefer Yehoshua in which we find a repeat of many of the events which occurred shortly after the exodus from Egypt. Am Yisrael cross a body of water on dry land, undergo Brit Mila and perform various actions which serve as educational messages for future generations. It would therefore seem appropriate that they participate in an event which serves a similar purpose to that of Matan Torah. The “blessings and curses ceremony”, as described in the parsha and elaborated upon in the last chapter of Massechet Sotah, fulfills this very function. Am Yisrael are required to affirm their acceptance of the mitzvot, belief in God and, in Rashi’s opinion, to enter in a covenantal agreement in which they accept the entire Torah.
Ramban explains that this verse refers to an acceptance of the mitzvoth in one’s heart, believing them to be true, and internalizing the concept of reward and punishment. Noting the fact that the Torah makes use of the word “yakim”, meaning to accept or uphold, as opposed to the word “assa”, which would mean performed, Ramban explains that one who fails to do a mitzvah or transgresses a negative precept receives due punishment. One who does not believe in a certain mitzvah is included in the “arur”, the curse mentioned here.
Rav Hirsch also notes the particular language of this curse and states:
“For this refers to recognizing or not recognizing, of maintaining or refraining from maintaining the Torah. In that case indifference is already sufficiently grave to entail coming under the curse, and blessing will only come if everyone does what he possibly can to ensure that the everlasting Torah receives everlasting recognition of its validity and is observed.”
This explanation takes the notion found in Ramban a stage further and suggests that not only must we believe in the Torah, we must do our utmost to ensure that Torah is accepted by others too. This idea would seem to be based on a statement found in the Yerushalmi (Sotah Chap.7 Hal.4) where Rav Assi says that if one taught, kept and performed Torah but did not do what he could in order to uphold the Torah, he is included in this curse. This is a very far-reaching statement and one which mandates all of us to do whatever we can to spread the words of Torah to all.
Interestingly, Kli Yakar quotes a midrash which can also be considered to be far-reaching. “Asher lo yakim” refers to one who learns Torah but not for its sake (shelo lishma). One who involves themselves in limmud Torah for reasons other than wishing to gain knowledge and to connect to the Divine word is in danger of being included in the curse mentioned in this Torah. We suggest that making use of the Torah for one’s own personal gain or for other benefit, in essence means a lack of belief in the Torah itself. Kli Yakar is therefore following a similar line to that discussed above by Ramban and Rav Hirsch.
Ramban quotes a different opinion in the Yerushalmi which states that the word “yakim” in this passuk refers to the “chazzan”. This is explained as relating to the chazzan who is negligent in how he places the Sefer Torah and as a result the scroll may fall, thereby degrading the Torah. Ramban suggests that it refers to the person who does “hagbaha”, who lifts up the Sefer Torah for all to see. The curse is placed upon one who does not perform this action correctly. As is delineated in Massechet Sofrim, the Sefer Torah must be raised in such a way that all those present in the shul are able to see the writing. One who does not do hagbaha in the correct fashion is included in the curse mentioned here.
This last explanation seems somewhat harsh. Familiar as we are with the on-goings in shul, we are aware that many of the Sifrei Torah are very heavy and cannot be easily lifted. Furthermore, not everyone who is asked to perform hagbaha is conversant in all the halachot and therefore may not lift the Torah exactly as one is supposed to. Are all these people cursed? Is anyone who does not make an effort to see the writing on the Sefer Torah during hagbaha cursed?
What is hagbaha? It is the ceremony during which the Sefer Torah is lifted up, open at the section which is being read that day and shown to all the congregants in the shul. In Sefardic congregations this takes place prior to the reading of the Torah whilst the Ashkenazic custom is to raise the Torah after it has been read. The importance of hagbaha could relate to the nature of Kriat Hatorah itself. Rav Soleveitchik, in various shiurim, discusses why we read from the Torah on a weekly basis. Is this a reenactment of the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai or is it a form of limmud Torah? We are not going to reach a conclusion on this matter here but the mitzvah of hagbaha could relate to either of these ideas. We open the Torah and show it to everyone in shul to emphasize that we are not merely reading from some book. We are learning Hashem’s Torah. We are doing so in public as was done on Har Sinai and we are connecting through our weekly Torah learning to a tradition centuries old.
Based on this analysis of hagbaha it is possible that Ramban does not see the curse in this passuk as refering to that unfortunate person who could not keep the Sefer Torah lifted up for quite long enough. As quoted above, Ramban states that the “arur” relates to our belief in the system of mitzvoth. In addition to this explanation of the passuk, Ramban wishes to emphasize the importance of the hagbaha ceremony, as a confirmation of our connection to the Torah from which we read.
In this sense, Ramban’s words connect to all the commentaries offered on this passuk. The Torah enjoins us to affirm our belief in the mitzvoth and the Torah in its entirety whether through limmud Torah, the hagbaha ceremony or simply in our hearts. And in the same way as during hagbaha the Torah is swung around in order that everyone may see the writing, so we are encouraged to do whatever we can to spread the truth of Torah and Shemirat Hamitzvot.