Thursday, August 29, 2013

The King is in the Building (potential derashah for Vayelech, 5774)

[This is my Toronto Torah article for this week; you can download the entire issue here.]

The mother of all Jewish conventions, the septennial hakhel gathering features an assembly of Jews of all ages. As Devarim 31:12 records Moshe's instruction, "Gather the nation: men, women, children, and the stranger at your gates." After every shemitah year, on the second night of Succot, all who call themselves by the name Israel must assemble and hear sections of the book of Devarim read aloud. Historically, this reading was done by the king, in an area of the Beit haMikdash.

The Torah's demand that children participate in the celebration is unique among our mitzvot; in no other communal mitzvah does the Torah explicitly require their participation. The Talmud (Chagigah 3a) is sensitive to this quirk, and it suggests that the reason to bring the children is "to provide reward for those who bring them." This seems circular, though; does the Talmud mean to say that G-d created a mitzvah solely for the sake of rewarding those who fulfill it?

One might explain the Talmud to mean that those who bring their children will be rewarded by the very act of bringing them. For example: Sefer haChinuch (612) contends that hakhel increases our love of Torah, through the glory of this gathering. Perhaps, then, having our children at hakhel rewards the bringers, by inculcating love of Torah into those children.

Alternatively, Ibn Ezra (Devarim 31:12) sees the benefit of hakhel as educational; those who attend will be inspired to ask questions, and thereby to learn more throughout the year. Having our curious children at hakhel will inspire them to inquire and learn.

However, a third benefit of bringing children may be linked to the practice of having the king conduct the public reading. Rambam does not list hakhel as a king's mitzvah, and indeed the Torah does not identify the reader explicitly. However, our sages (Sotah 41a) took for granted that this should be the king. [See also Yereim 233 and 266, Tosafot Yom Tov to Sotah 7:8, and Minchat Chinuch 612:2.] Certainly, there is added splendour an gravitas when the king leads a ritual, but why this ritual, in particular?

Every seven years, during the period of shemitah, the normal rules of society cease to function: the fences surrounding fields are broken, the tithes that support the kohanim and leviyim are neglected, the heirarchical relationship between employer and employee is severed, hardworking farmers become men of leisure, and loans are forgiven and forgotten. This can constitute a healthy break for society, and a community's rules can be strengthened by this sort of periodic vacation. [See Jeffrey Rubenstein, Purim, Liminality and Communitas.] However, with such a haitus we risk the possibility that the community falls in love with its lawless vacation, and forgets to return.

This may be part of the role of hakhel: To remind the Jewish nation that its existence is still governed by the rules and institutions of the Torah. Thus the nation reads key biblical passages: the fundamentals of our faith; the tithes given to the kohanim, the leviyim and the needy; the monarchy; and the national covenant into which we enter at the end of the book of Devarim. (Mishnah Sotah 7:8; Tosefta Sotah 7:17) We re-commit ourselves to these obligations, and to our national structure.

Within this context, having the king perform the reading is entirely logical; the king is the heart of the command structure we reiterate with hakhel. And bringing our children is its own reward, for even children who are too young to comprehend the reading will realize that the entire community has assembled as one to hear the instructions of its king, and this will create a lasting appreciation for the honour of our government and society's institutions.

In less than one week, we will perform a version of hakhel as we gather to mark Rosh haShanah. Among the central themes of this day is the coronation of G-d as King, and this, too, is a necessary reminder. From Yom Kippur to Rosh haShanah there is very little in our lives that declares to us, "HaShem hu ha'Elokim!" We can go through much of our year, even while observing mitzvot, without devoting significant thought to the meaning and implications of the Divine Throne. So it is that once each year we set aside time to gather with the explicit aim of coronating our King. May we be personally and communally impacted by this grand celebration – and may we ensure that our children participate in the moment, so that they will be impacted as well.

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