Have you ever attended a company’s annual shareholder meeting? A couple’s fortieth wedding anniversary? A school graduation? A president’s inauguration? These occasions share pomp, ceremony, and ceremonial structure that go way beyond their utilitarian function. The music, the way people are dressed and the formal proceedings all help to conjure an atmosphere of unforgettable significance. We can use this principle to add meaning to our lives.
Deuteronomy 31 opens with Moses telling Israel that he’s 120 years-old and Joshua will soon take over. “Be strong and of good courage,” he says, and assures the nation that God will never forsake them. (Deuteronomy 31:1-6)
The next two verses describe Moses charging Joshua with the task of leadership. (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)
Here’s what should come next:
And God said to Moses, now your days approach death, call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting that I may command him…
But this verse follows only after five intervening verses interrupt the flow. These verses explain that Moses wrote down the Torah, entrusted it to the priests and instituted a massive convention every seven years at which the Torah would be read before the entire nation — men, women, and children. (Deuteronomy 31:9-13)
Why does this instruction for a once-every-seven-years-Torah-reading-convention interrupt the story of the succession of leadership?
The clue lies in Moses’ use of the first word in verse 12, the verb “gather” or in Hebrew, HaKHeL.
This word is spelled exactly the same way as one of the Hebrew words for, “the congregation,” HaKaHaL. Hebrew in the Torah is written without vowels, so two words that have different pronunciations and meanings are sometimes spelled identically. In a way that is unique to God’s language, this similarity between words tells us to look at those words together. When we encounter the word made up of the consonants HKHL we are reminded that we saw it used twice earlier in Deuteronomy describing the revelatory encounter at Sinai.
The day when you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb (Sinai), when the Lord said to me, gather (HKHL) the people…
And the Lord gave me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God;
and on them were written all the words which the Lord spoke with you…
on the day of the gathering (HKHL)
Interrupting the story of Joshua’s succession with news of a once in seven years special national Torah shareholders meeting tells us the most important thing about any future leader of Israel. Leadership must always be subservient to the nation’s constitution—the Torah.
At this dramatic reminder of the Sinai experience, shofars (ram horns) will be blown and the king of Israel will sit on a large platform reading the whole Torah aloud to the nation. Being told about this powerful ceremony at this crucial point near Moses’ death, places the transfer of power to Joshua in context. Leaders can change as long as allegiance to the Torah doesn’t.
Like the ceremonies that surround this gathering, like the pomp of a graduation, the way we dress for work or family functions is an important tool for establishing the importance of those events. Sitting at a table and eating off attractive plates, rather than grabbing food on the fly, transforms eating from an animal-like to an exclusively human activity. Writing your daily journal with a fountain pen filled with green ink in a finely bound notebook rather than scrawling it with a free give-away promotional ballpoint pen on a scrap of old dog-eared paper, reflects the weight you put on your writing.