A House of Prayer for all Peoples
Deuteronomy 31:11-12 records a very special commandment: “Read this Torah before all of Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men and women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns that they may hear and learn.”
At the end of the seven-year cycle, at the close of the Sabbatical year, all of Israel is to gather during the Feast of Tabernacles and hear the Torah read aloud. It was customary for the King of Israel to read selected verses from the Torah. What an impressive gathering it must have been!
The conclusion of the Sabbatical year is selected as the time for this special gathering. The gathering itself combines two key elements – the presence of the nation before the King of Israel and the commitment of the nation to the God of Israel, as symbolized by the reading of the Scriptural verses. It is right and fitting that this be a special event – not an annual event but an event repeated only once in seven years.
The selection of the time for this event at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year is interesting indeed. Farmers will have just completed a time of rest when the struggles of planting and the hopes and fears for the harvest were put on hold for a year. The nation will have lived for one year on the basis of previous years’ harvests, relying on the goodness of God to get through the year. It is quite possible that the farmer will have dedicated more time during that year for bible study and other spiritual endeavors in place of the usual farming burdens.
Indeed the sabbatical year is observed in similar ways today, especially by religious farmers. I know of some who literally take the year off and spend the time studying the Bible, as well as the Talmud, Jewish law, and Jewish thought. It is indeed a time of spiritual renewal for so many.
As the new year begins, however, the farmer will retreat from his more spiritual experience and return to an earthly one. What an important time, therefore, to repeat the promises of God and His injections to remain faithful to His word. As the nation returns to its earthly involvements, it is reminded of the spiritual basis of its work and of its existence.
Many years ago, when I first came to Israel, my family was present at the renewal of this custom. We had small children and we brought them all so that we could fulfill the complete spirit of this message. Thousands gathered at the Western Wall, the closest we could get to where the Temple once stood, and the President of Israel, then Chaim Herzog, read aloud from the Torah. The Chief Rabbis and other dignitaries were present. It was indeed an awesome experience.
Every seven years since then the ceremony has taken place. The last time was several years ago, during the height of the Intifada. At that time, a few of us who were involved with Christian supporters of Israel decided to hold a parallel event that would welcome Christians to this very special occasion. The Bible says that the stranger within our gates should be invited and we wanted to make sure our loving “strangers” were included. The event was in English and hundreds were there. Just as the prayers were closing, the Mosque began its call to prayer, blasting out its sounds as if to drown us out. But many had brought shofars and at that very moment, began blowing them with such gusto. It was indeed a memorable event.
Once again, I will close my comments with a prayer for the temple to be rebuilt and become, once again, a focus for prayer for the entire world. “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:7)
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office