VaYelekh – We Are All Sinners

הקהל את העם, האנשים הנשים והטף וגרך אשר בשעריך, למען ישמעו ולמען ילמדו ויראו את ה’ אלהיכם ושמרו לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת

(דברים, ל”א, י”ב)

The people of Israel are about to enter the promised land, and Moshe is wrapping up his great speech to them and bidding them farewell.

In this week’s parasha we read about the mitzvah of הקהל (gathering), which was performed once every seven years, during the Sukkot festival immediately following the year of shemitah (just like this year):

Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law (Devarim 31, 12)

This ritual was basically a re-enactment of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a confirmation of the covenant between God and his People. In last week’s parasha, Nitsavim, Moshe made a distinction between the righteous and the not-so-righteous, warning against straying after other gods. Yet in this week’s parasha there is no such distinction. Everybody – men, women, children, converts – gather together to hear the word of God.

In our days we do not have this mitzvah. But in a few days we will all gather in the synagogue and recite the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayers, which open with the prayer of Kol Nidrei, preceded by the following proclamation:

By the authority of the Court on High and by authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.

On the holiest day of the year, we invite also the sinners to come and pray with us. There is no distinction.

Who are these sinners? The common explanation is simple: people who have sinned, and have come to repent their sins on Yom Kippur. We invite them to join the congregation in prayer. The Talmud (Keritut 6:) says that a fast cannot be considered a proper fast unless the sinners are part of it. Just like we add the foul-smelling spice of helbonah to the incense (ketoret) in the Temple, so the People of Israel must be as one when they come to repent before their God.

But there is another way to look at this. Who are we to judge others? When we proclaim that the sinners are invited to join the prayers, we are in effect addressing everybody, including ourselves. There is no person that can stand up and say: I have not sinned. Sometimes a person who is deemed a sinner may actually do good, and vice versa. Shlomo says: “For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good and does not sin” (Kohelet, 7, 20).

All year long we can be judgemental. We can look at others and proclaim them to be righteous or sinners. But on Yom Kippur, when everybody gathers together, we proclaim that we are all sinners. By levelling the playing field we unite ourselves before God, just as Moshe commanded the people to do every seven years.

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