Vayelech: Moshe, breaker of chains

Vayelech: Moshe, breaker of chains

Rabbi-in-residence, Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School, Oakland, 

As HBO’s award-winning fantasy “Game of Thrones” recently came to an end, I have joined other fans in reflecting on the series’ most memorable moments. Typically, fellow viewers give top billing to the breaching of The Wall or the slaying of the Night King (certainly good choices.) But a passage in this week’s parasha brought me back to a rather less cinematic, if no less impactful, episode — Sam Tarley’s sojourn at the Citadel.

Whether you’re an avid “Thrones” devotee or whether you don’t know Westeros from West Orange, the episode’s opening scene is striking. Just picture our wide-eyed protagonist as he enters the Citadel’s cavernous library, where thousands of books fill endless lines of shelves. Reaching for a volume, he suddenly stops short at the sight of metal rods. As the camera pans, the rings of iron chains come into focus on the screen. The books, we now see, are shackled.

I had learned enough medieval history to know this jarring depiction was realistic. British scholar B.H. Streeter, in a study excerpted in Time Magazine, explains: “In the Middle Ages books were rare, and so was honesty. A book was worth as much as a farm, but it was portable property that could easily be purloined. Books, therefore, were shut in a chest under lock and key or chained to a desk, sometimes four or five together.”

Despite knowing of the practice, though, I could not shake the discomfiting image. There is a leitmotif running through the show of Queen Danerys as the “breaker of chains,” freeing others from servitude. Here, the Citadel scene points to ostensibly free people who nevertheless do not have unfettered access to sources of knowledge, which are themselves chained. The not-so-subtle metaphor should not be lost on us; in a world where far too many still lack access to education, the chained books underscore that it is the contents within, not merely the physical items, which are valuable. Moreover, if only a select group holds the keys to that content, then they alone hold the reins of power, as well.

Parashat Vayelech contains a corrective measure: “Read this teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel,” Moshe instructs the Kohanim in the opening passage. “Gather the people — men, women, children, and strangers in your community — so that they may hear and learn…” Here, the text declares unequivocally that Torah — the very record of divine revelation — not remain the purview of the priestly class, but rather be disseminated to the entire community (male and female, young and old) and even to individuals beyond the community.

While this public reading was to be observed every seven years, the commentator Ibn Ezra remarks that the practice of chanting the weekly Torah portion serves the same didactic purpose. Seforno, meanwhile, explains that the variant verbs (“hear, learn”) refer to those with different intellectual abilities — in other words, the priests were meant to practice an early form of “differentiated instruction,” ensuring that all learning styles were attended to.

But this passage is more than a teacher’s manual. The text implicitly reminds us how easy it is for leaders to command obedience when they are the only ones privy to information. Presiding over those who lack the knowledge to challenge rules or understand their basis is contrary to the parsha’s model. On the contrary, Moshe teaches Torah to the Kohanim with the express purpose that they pass it on, such that no leader can conceal the sources of their knowledge or decisions. Moshe, like Danerys, once broke the chains of bondage; now he unfetters the Torah itself, as all Jews are given access to the corpus of Torah.

There is a powerful spiritual dimension to this text. Taken out of the exclusive realm of ordained leaders, Judaism becomes the possession of anyone who engages in the pursuit of Torah study. Rabbi Bradley Artson quotes Professor Louis Finkelstein, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as saying, “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.” Indeed, the idea that we hear the voice of God through study has roots in the Midrash. Shemot Rabbah (47:1) says: “Moses spoke all these words.’ This indicates that even questions that pupils ask their teacher in the future, God told Moses at that time.” Personally, my work week is filled with pupils’ questions; how deeply satisfying it is to conceive of these inquiries as part of the ongoing process of revelation.

Additionally, the text carries a practical, moral dimension, given that numerous students around the world lack vital educational access today. In China, students are cut off from information by repressive government censorship of the internet, while discriminatory policies keep pregnant or married adolescent girls out of schools altogether in countries across Africa. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the number of primary-aged children out of school has impressively been cut almost in half in the last fifteen years, but millions of the students now in school are still learning very little due to subpar resources.

For those who have been privileged with access to education, it behooves us to put our knowledge to use in bridging the education gaps that exist—in technology, opportunity, and resources—or supporting organizations with this mission. By investing both in our children’s Jewish education, as well as in global education initiatives beyond our own community, we further both the spiritual elements of Torah study as well as the broad vision of equal educational opportunity laid out in the parsha. With our dedication and support, that vision can become a reality, and not remain just another fantasy.

read more: