Vayelech: Glorious gathering

Bringing hakhel into the Jewish home.

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the most awe inspiring events of Jewish ritual must have been the mitzvah of Hakhel. Once every seven years, at the end of theshemitta/Sabbatical cycle, during the Succot festival, "When all Israel comes to appear before Hashem, your God, ... you shall read this Torah before all Israel... Gather together the people - the men, women, small children, and the stranger who is in your cities - so that they will hear... and learn... and fear Hashem. And their children who do not know - they shall hear..."

As Rabbi Reiss points out, this gathering of every member of Klal Yisroel seems to be a reenactment of our nation's receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. If that is the case, wouldn't such a gathering be more appropriate for Shavuot when Hashem actually gave us the Torah than for Succot? Further, there seems to be an emphasis on bringing the children, even those who cannot yet comprehend the significance of the gathering. Is it just so that the parents can receive a reward for the challenges and effort of bringing the children and maintaining order, as a simple reading of Rashi's answer suggests? Finally, the overriding question remains: Why link this awesome gathering and reading of the Torah to shemitta, particularly to the end of the cycle rather than to the beginning?

On a completely esoteric level, we know that seven represents the completion of one cycle or one order, with a new cycle beginning with the eighth, whether it is a week, an octave in music, or a shemitta cycle. Along these lines, rabbi Munk notes that the seven shemitta years represent the seven millenia of the earth's existence, and a new world order will begin at the beginning of the eighth millennium. But we can bring the concept of completing the cycle and beginning a new world order back down to earth. Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim notes that indeed at the end of shemitta we are returning to the occupations of the mundane world, leaving  behind the spiritual cocoon of shemitta, when we were totally involved in learning Torah instead of planting and harvesting. And this is precisely why this gathering should take place on Succot rather than on Shavuot, continues Rabbi Reiss. On Succot we leave the comfort of our homes and live in these huts, affirming our belief that it is not our effort but Hashem Who provides for all our physical needs. As we reenter the world of agricultural labor, (the society of that time was totally agricultural) we remind ourselves of that same point - we are putting in our effort, but we rely completely on Hashem for our success and our sustenance. 

An additional aspect of Succot is the heightened sense of joy we feel, and indeed are commanded to feel, on Succot above all holidays. Included with the joy, however, is a sense of trembling and awe. As the nation gathered in the Beit Hamikdosh on the foot festivals, they were filled with awe at being in Hashem's presence as well as joy and love at being in His presence. These feelings were reflected in the presence of the earthly king who then read the Torah to all of Bnei Yisroel, explains Rav Dovid Hofstedter in Dorash Dovid. At this time, after spending a full year immersed in Torah Study, away from all mundane concerns, the love for the Torah and for each other as we were gathered here together, could be intensified and internalized.

Rabbi Weinberger in Shemen Hatov notes that the Shir shel Yom/the Song of the Day that the Levites sang in the Beit Hamikdosh on Sunday, the first day of the new weekly cycle after Shabbat, is also the psalm we recite at Maariv of Rosh Hashanah. Each of these times begins a new cycle, and we must remember, as this Psalm declares, that the earth and everything in it belongs to Hashem. Now as we are about to reenter the workforce and plow our fields anew, we must also remember that everything belongs to Hashem. In this way, we will merit Hashem's blessings from the produce of the earth.

However, asks Rabbi Shamai Zahn in Letitcha Elyon, would it not be more logical to schedule this major conclave before shemitta as inspiration for the spiritual year the people were about to embark on? On the contrary, answers Rabbi Zahn. One cannot enter into such an elevated spiritual state as Hakheldemands without preparation. The year of shemitta serves as preparation for the awe of meeting the King at Hakhel. Similarly, we take time before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to learn and put ourselves in the proper frame of mind for the approaching Days of Awe. The calendar may dictate the physical date, but preparation dictates the spiritual readiness of the soul.

Rabbi Uri Weissblum clarifies this point in He'orat Derech. He notes an unusual verse in Dayenu that we sing at the Pesach Seder. We recite, "Had He brought us before Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah Dayenu/it would have been sufficient." If the whole point of the exodus from Egypt was to receive the Torah, how could just arriving at the mountain without continuing to receive the Torah have been enough? To this Rabbi Weissblum explains that the preparation for standing at Sinai was so intense that we were in such a state of purity to greet the Presence of God. We had done full teshuvah for questioning Hashem's presence among us as Amalek approached. We had reached a level so spiritual and with such national unity that we had become again as pure as Adam before the sin and we could answer as one, "Na'aseh venishma/We will do and we will listen."

What is the connection between our receiving the Torah, our unity, and teshuvah?  Rabbi Weissblum explains that it all comes down to preparation. Each individual of Bnei Yisroel was involved in personal preparation through his own teshuvah process. Collectively, they had reached a state of total commitment to Hashem through the teshuvah process. Then they could declare as one, "Na'aseh venishma."

Now we can understand how the year of shemitta can serve as preparation for Hakhel. One cannot experience the full awesomeness of the day without deep and extensive preparation. This day was a reenactment of our stand at Sinai. It required the same intense preparation. Similarly, note our Sages, all this world is merely a preparation for the world to come. How are we to prepare for that final goal? Not through rote performance of Torah and mitzvoth, but through taking at least a brief moment to focus on our observance before we begin. If we take that moment, it is unlikely we will wonder whether or not we have benched after eating, or forget where we are up to in our prayers. We must prepare ourselves in this world so we are ready to enter "the palace". SinceHakhel parallels the Sinai experience that brings us into a new spiritual level of existence, every member of our household, even infants who do not yet understand, must be part of that experience. After all, the purpose of both, writes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter in Dorash Dovid is to come to love and fear Hashem.

We can now understand why Hakhel is connected to shemitta, but it seems strange that Hakhel is observed not at the actual conclusion of the shemitta cycle, but at the beginning of the next shemitta cycle. But Rabbi Dunner in Mikdash Halevi gives us a perfectly logical psychological explanation. We are just emerging from the spiritual bubble we have lived in for a full year, a time when we felt a special closeness to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. When Succot will be over, we will be leaving this realm to reenter the mundane world with all its struggles for our livelihood. Will we choose to try lingering in this world just a little longer, or will we eagerly rush ahead to our farms and our offices? Our attitude at leaving reflects our attitude toward Hashem and to performing His mitzvoth. Are we disappointed when it rains on Succot and we cannot sit in the succah, or are we happy not to have to carry the hot food out of the house into the succah? Do we figuratively kick the succah for the inconvenience, as the other nations kicked the succah when Hashem gave them the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah? Do we linger in shul after davening (not to socialize), or is one foot out the door running to catch the train before the final Amen? Let us take our cue from Yaakov Avinu who, after awakening from his prophetic dream and realizing that the presence of God permeated this place, was loath to leave, forcing his feet to move so he could continue his journey.

We are still left to ponder one point: Why were we commanded to bring the children? It must be more than simply a practical solution since, if all adults were required to attend, no babysitters would be available. It must also be deeper than just to give parents the reward for dragging them along, contends Rabbi Frand. In deed, we bring them along so they can absorb the atmosphere and sound of Torah so it will be familiar to them as they grow older. [How often have we heard of an assimilated Jew returning to Yiddishkeit because he became nostalgic at hearing sounds or encountering scents from childhood hours spent in Bubbie's or Zaydie's house?] It is for this reason that a parent should recite his brachot out loud when his infant is awake, and learn Torah in his home, adds Letitcha Elyon. According to the Steipler Gaon, a parent should even begin washing negel vasser with his infant child. Prepare the child for a life of kedusha/holiness. The actions and words leave an impression even when there is no intellectual understanding.

The beginning of wisdom is fear of Hashem, reminds us the Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom. Without that training, the yetzer horo would be impossible to overcome. We want to imbue in our children a sense of awe that we are always in Hashem's presences. When a child sees his parent talking to an unseen Being in prayers and blessings, notes Rabbi Wolbe, he comes to understand, albeit subliminally, that there exists a Being outside of himself and outside his physical senses. Hakhel is a preparation for the child's continued education in his home.

But, as we noted, the parents are rewarded for bringing the children. That reward, writes he Minchas Michoel in the name of the Ben Ish Chai, is for the mesirat nefesh, the self sacrifice and effort the parent expends to teach the children what is important. That concept from Hakhel is to teach us that indeed we, as parents, must expend time and energy to teach our children Torah. In spite of long hours at work, we should make time to sit down personally and learn with them.

We are now approaching the Yomim Noraim/The Days of Awe. The Netivot Shalom writes that Hakhel is meant to teach us to keep our priorities straight. The most important gift we can give our children is the gift of our time, time to spend with our children and acquaint them with the third partner in their existence, Hakodosh Boruch Hu. We do not yet have Hakhel, but we do have other religious experiences we can share with our children, whether it's a Hachnosat Sefer Torah/Dedication of a new Sefer Torah, to dancing with our children aloft on Simchat Torah, to simply calling them to watch us as we light Shabbat candles and greeting each other with Shabbat shalom and a warm hug and kiss afterward.

We can bring the experience of Hakhel into our lives and into the lives of our children, albeit on a smaller scale, so that the awe and love of the experience will carry forward to infuse our lives with the awe and joy of being always in Hashem's presence..