Why "Gather the Entire People"?

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Avi Shmidman and Dov Karoll

Moshe gathered the entire people of Israel, and he said to them, "These are the things that God has said to do." (Shemot 35:1)

What is the purpose of this gathering? A gathering of all the people is rare during these years in the desert, and it begs for an explanation.

Let us survey, then, the other such gatherings.

At the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, we find that "You are all gathered here together before God…" (Devarim 29:9). Rashi (s.v. attem) explains that this gathering is meant to bring the people into a berit, a covenant; to enter into a berit, you need all of the people. It is possible, though, to explain otherwise: the entire Sefer Devarim is comprised of Moshe's parting message, and this parasha – starting from Nitzavim – is the crowning jewel. Thus, this parasha was deserving of a full gathering.

Similarly, at the beginning of Sefer Devarim, we find, "These are the words that Moshe spoke unto all Israel…" (Devarim 1:1). Again, Rashi here (s.v. el) offers a technical explanation. Rashi views Sefer Devarim mainly as a book of rebuke, and here, when Moshe lists the people's sins, Rashi says that all of the people must be present in order to give them a chance to have their say – so that none can later say, "We would have denied it had we been present." However, we again can offer another explanation for the gathering: as Moshe begins his parting message, he gathers the people to underscore the drama of the moment.

We also hear of a full gathering at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim: "Speak unto the entire community of Israel, and tell them, 'You shall be holy…'" (Vayikra 19:2). In that context, the demand of gathering the entire people is understandable – Parashat Kedoshim contains within it many of the main tenets of the Torah, and surveys within it many mitzvot. Beyond the high quantity of mitzvot, this parasha also touches on a broad variety – mitzvot between man and God, interpersonal mitzvot, positive mitzvot, prohibitions, and so on.

However, such an explanation can hardly be given for the gathering described in the parashot of Vayakhel and Pekudei. These are technical, monochromatic parashot, which essentially repeat what we have already heard in Teruma and Teztaveh. Why, then, the need for a gathering of the entire people?

Ibn Ezra (Shemot 35:1, s.v. ta'am) explains that the time had come to ask for donations to the mishkan, and the gathering was necessary to impress the importance of the mishkan on each and every person, to ensure widespread generosity. We find similar explanations in the Rashbam (s.v. va-yakhel) and the first explanation of the Ramban (s.v. va-yakhel).

What all these positions have in common is that they are future-oriented. The gathering is meant to instill in the nation fervor for the upcoming national task of building the mishkan.

The Ramban, in his alternate explanation, does consider that perhaps the focus of the gathering is on the past, specifically relating to the sin of the golden calf. Following the sin, the nation is in need of a renewed covenant with God – and this must be performed with the presence of the entire nation.

It is possible to extend this line of thought, with its focus on the past, but to go much farther than just the immediately preceding event. If we shift our focus from the relationship between God and the Jewish people to emphasizing the interpersonal relationship between the Jewish people and Moshe their leader, then this gathering becomes extremely pertinent and its need becomes apparent.

At the beginning of their journey in the desert, the people saw Moshe as the ultimate lover of Israel (based on Menachot 65a and 65b), their great hero. His entire existence was dedicated to serving them. He sat to judge them "from dawn to dusk" (Shemot 18:13). When Yitro suggested that Moshe delegate the work, Moshe refused to adopt the suggestion – and one didn't have to be such a genius to come up with the suggestion. It was Moshe's love for the Jewish people that made him insist on being in touch with each and every person in the nation (see Ramban 18:15, s.v. ki), and he was reluctant to give up this connection. The people certainly recognized Moshe's great effort – no matter how small their dispute, they were able to walk right up to Moshe and address him directly, with no secretary and no intermediary.

Since then, however, from the perspective of the people, everything had changed.

The nation saw that Moshe tarried in coming down the mountain, and the nation gathered up on Aharon, and they said to him, "Make for us an icon that will walk before us, for this man Moshe, who took us out of Egypt, we know not what has become of him" (Shemot 32:1).

Moshe has been away for forty days, and the people wonder what has happened. When they say, "For this man Moshe, who took us out of Egypt," what is their intent? It can be interpreted as praise, as Rashi (s.v. asher) explains; however, it may just as easily have been meant in a derogatory sense – this Moshe who has brought us out of the flesh pots, from the place where we had fish and meat aplenty, into this desert, he has now deserted us – "We know not what has become of him."

When Moshe finally descends, he is no longer the loving leader, but a fiery zealot – as three thousand people are killed instantaneously. The people watch, and they are stunned. Their trust in Moshe has disappeared, and their suspicions deteriorate into an absolute loss of faith. The chasm that has developed between them grows larger and larger.

Moshe may once have sat with the people, but he now has placed his tent "far from the camp" (33:7). This is not simply outside the camp, but at some distance from it – perhaps kilometers away. And this physical dissociation reinforced the overall interpersonal dissociation that they felt.

This dissociation, of course, exists solely from the perspective of the people. For us, readers of the Biblical story, a very different image emerges. But this is due to the fact that the Torah makes us aware of phenomena of which the Jewish people at the time were not aware. The episode of Moshe pleading with God (32:11-13) exemplifies Moshe's great love of Israel, arguing for the nation's survival against God. When God offers Moshe, "Let Me alone, and I shall send forth my wrath and destroy them, and I shall make you a great nation" (32:10) – a generous offer – Moshe flatly refuses: "If You will not forgive them, wipe me out of Your book that You have written!" (32:32).

Moshe is interested not in his own glory, but in the welfare of the nation. Moshe sits with God, "face to face" (33:11), with the sole purpose of bridging the gap between God and the nation. Moshe has two, and only two, goals: to bring the nation closer to God, and, so to speak, to bring God closer to the nation.

Thus, from our view of what is taking place on the historical stage – this superb drama - we see only deep roots and firm bonds between Moshe and the people. But the people themselves, who know nothing of these encounters, experience only deep anger, distance, and dissociation.

Thus, at the conclusion of Parashat Ki Tisa, Moshe, sensing the gap that has developed between himself and the people, endeavors to rebuild the trust, the relationship; he wishes to state publicly and forthrightly where he indeed stands with respect to the people. To meet this need, it is clearly not enough for him to confer just with the leaders, or just with certain social strata. He must mandate a general gathering of the people – in order to pursue his goal of reinstating the relationship between himself and each and every member of the nation.

[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayakhel, 5763 (2003).]