The practice of hagbah, of hoisting the Torah high in the air for everyone to see, has rich symbolism. It symbolises our faith in, and acceptance of, every aspect of the Torah. But it also symbolises our duty to promote Torah in the world; not just observing Torah ourselves, but encouraging and empowering others to keep it. The most powerful way we do this is through our own example; by being a living example of the refinement and decency and integrity that accompanies a Torah life, we ensure others hold Torah in a similarly high regard.
Hagbah is an interesting practice. After the Torah portion has been read, the open scroll is hoisted into the air so that everyone can see it. The congregation stands to attention. Those close enough scan the actual text. Everyone acknowledges it in some way. According to some sources, hagbah is the most important of all the aliyot, the different honours accorded individuals during Torah reading.
What is hagbah all about? What is the symbolism here?
A verse from this week’s Torah portion gives us a good place to start. The parsha describes the covenantal ceremony enacted on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, on entry into the Promised Land. A declaration is made: “Cursed is the one who does not lift up and keep the words of this Torah.” (Devarim 27:26) The declaration is phrased in the negative, but according to the Gemara, it was also made in the positive: “Blessed is the one who lifts up the Torah and establishes it.”
The Ramban cites an opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud, which explains the verse to be referencing hagbah. The Talmud goes on to say that “lifting up” the Torah means accepting and upholding it in its entirety. We are required to accept all 613 commandments. Even though we sometimes stumble in various mitzvot, we accept that each one is an expression of G-d’s will and is eternally binding on us. This is what the upcoming High Holy Days are about – accepting G-d’s Kingship and the sovereignty of His will, and repenting for the occasions where we haven’t lived up to that higher calling.
We see that hagbah symbolises our faith in, and acceptance of, every aspect of the Torah. This is why, when the Torah is lifted in shul, we say in unison: “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Jewish people when G-d gave it to us.” We are acknowledging that the Torah in front of us is the very word of G-d, as revealed at Mount Sinai.
Another explanation the Ramban offers for the verse “who lifts up the Torah” is that it refers to promoting Torah in the world. “Lifting it up” means holding up the Torah for people to see and appreciate. According to this explanation, the verse is saying: Blessed is the person who not only keeps the Torah himself, but encourages and empowers others to keep it as well, strengthening others in the performance of mitzvot and the service of Hashem.
Practically, though, how do we promote the Torah and encourage people to keep it?
One example of how to accomplish this is found at the beginning of our parsha, which describes the mitzvah of bikkurim. Farmers were obligated to bring their first fruits to the Temple and make a declaration in the presence of the Kohanim, dedicating their produce to the Creator of all things. At the Temple, the farmers would recite a short synopsis of Jewish history, situating their agricultural endeavours within the context of a much grander narrative: how the Jewish people landed up in Egypt; how we were afflicted by the Egyptians and we called out to G-d; how He answered our cries and redeemed us with signs and wonders, and eventually brought us to the Land of Israel – to the sacred ground from which these first fruits were harvested. In this way, the entire farming experience becomes grounded in the context of spiritual meaning, a connection to G-d, and deep appreciation.
The Mishna paints a colourful picture of the farmers’ procession: they did not arrive one by one in Jerusalem; rather, they would go up in a group, accompanied by music, and a whole entourage to mark the occasion. And all the residents of Jerusalem – the shopkeepers and the workers – were obliged to stop their work and stand up to greet the farmers’ arrival. “All the artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them, saying: ‘Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.’” (Bikkurim 3:3)
Why all the fanfare?
At this outpouring of joy – an entire city coming to a standstill – the Gemara exclaims: “Come and see how precious is a mitzvah which is performed at the right time!” (Kiddushin 33a) There are strict halachot regarding employees taking away work time from an employer. Yet greeting the entourage of farmers was such a precious mitzvah that everyone was required to stop what they were doing in order to fulfil it.
Furthermore, explains the Gemara, it was important to encourage the farmers so that they would return the following year. It takes a lot of faith and effort to leave their families, set aside their fields, and make the long journey to Jerusalem – and being greeted with such warmth and open rejoicing by an entire city would have been a big morale booster.
This episode gives us a vivid illustration of what it means to uphold the Torah by conveying its importance to people. It’s much more meaningful than any sermon. When people carrying the first fruits enter the city of Jerusalem, and everybody stands up for them and stops their work in order to pay tribute to the farmers’ great mitzvah, this is a loud, resounding message of how precious the Torah is. This is how we hold up the Torah: by acknowledging, praising and encouraging one another to perform mitzvot.
But there is another, perhaps even more powerful, way to promote Torah in the world: through our own example. This is the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name, which is one of the most important principles in the Torah. It could, in fact, be the highest calling we have.
Sanctifying G-d’s Name means representing Torah and mitzvot in such a way that people relate to them correctly; that they have an appropriately positive impression of what it means to live a G-dly, Torah-oriented life. It means upholding the Torah by standing up for our principles and being clear about who we are and promoting the Torah’s values with pride.
Indeed, one of the most powerful ways of sanctifying G-d’s Name, and thereby encouraging others in Torah observance, is through what we do, how we behave. The Gemara (Yoma 86a) puts it succinctly: “Make the name of Heaven beloved through you”. In other words, we are called on to bring the people we encounter to an appreciation of – and ultimately a closeness to – G-d, through our living example.
The Gemara goes on to explain what this means – that we immerse ourselves in learning Torah, that we display unimpeachable integrity in our dealings with others, and that we speak gently to everyone at all times.
The Gemara says, when we behave in ways that inspire others, we fulfil the verse: “Through you, I will be glorified.” The Gemara adds a remarkable caveat, regarding a person who is learned in Torah but does not behave with integrity and does not speak gently to people: that such a person has brought G-d’s name into disrepute.
According to the Gemara, it is a very simple formula: if we act with integrity and decency, if we are kind and gentle, then people will come to love Hashem and His Torah. This is one of the most powerful ways to uphold the Torah. We uphold the Torah by declaring that it is the ultimate good in the world, the essence of who we are, the guiding light for everything we do. But practically, we convey this message and inspire people through the way we actually live the Torah. By being a living example of the refinement and decency and integrity that accompanies a Torah life, we ensure that others, too, hold Torah in the highest regard.