The Experience of Hakhel
Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Summarized by Asher Y. Altshul
Were the Temple standing, we would have observed the septennial Hakhel assembly this Sukkot. The Torah describes Hakhel as follows (Devarim 31:10-13):
"And Moshe commanded them, saying: At the end of every seven years, after the sabbatical year, on the festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to see the presence of the Lord your God in the place that I will choose, read this Torah before all of Israel to their ears. Assemble the entire nation: men, women, and children, and the strangers who dwell within your gates, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn to fear the Lord their God and keep the words of this Torah. And their children, who do not know, will listen and will learn to fear the Lord your God, all the days that you live upon the land which you are crossing the Jordan to inherit."
According to this description, the mitzva of Hakhel consists of three aspects.
* First, we have the formal commandment to assemble.
* Second, there is actual reading, listening, and learning that is done at this assembly.
* The third aspect is the fulfillment of Hakhel's purpose, as the Torah writes: "In order that they hear, and in order that they learn to fear the God your Lord."
The Gemara (Chagiga 3a) recounts Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya's understanding of the Hakhel assembly:
"'Assemble the entire nation: men, women, and children' - men, to learn; women, to hear; and children, to give reward to those who brought them [to the assembly]."
R. Elazar believes that the Torah designates a specific purpose for each group's obligation to attend Hakhel. Men are obligated to assemble in order to fulfill their mitzva of learning Torah. Women, who are not commanded to perform that mitzva, are required to hear the words of the Torah, and thus internalize its teachings. Lastly, children, who are too young to do either, have no essential purpose in being there. Rather, those who are inconvenienced by taking them to Jerusalem are rewarded.
The Ramban (Devarim 31:12) has a very different approach. He explains that both men and women are obligated to listen and learn. The children referred to in the verse are not too young to understand, as R. Eliezer taught. Rather, they are already old enough to comprehend their surroundings, and therefore the Hakhel experience can and should instill in them fear of God.
Although Rabbi Elazar seems to indicate that the "learning" aspect of Hakhel is limited to men, if we look carefully, we see that this is not necessarily so. The verse cited by R. Elazar states that all three groups must be present, and each group had its own focus. However, words "in order that they hear and in order that they learn" do not refer to the objective of any single group. Rather, they describe the general objective of Hakhel.
Hakhel is held once every seven years. The experience is intended to be an extraordinary one. The entire nation assembles in Jerusalem - men, women, and children silently await the reading of God's Torah. The King of Israel, God's representative, sits above the nation and in a booming voice reads the Book of Devarim. The nation "listens and learns," as if the words were being given on Har Sinai.
Hakhel's purpose is not only to teach the content of God's Torah, but to cause Bnei Yisrael to internalize the words of the Torah. The experience of standing in awe as the king recites the words of the Almighty, of trembling in fear as the holy words reach one's ears, will ultimately bring the participant to fear God - a feeling which is meant to last for the next seven years.
We find a similar concept within the laws of ma'aser sheini. Most years, one is required to take one-tenth of his crop and to travel to Jerusalem. Only in Jerusalem, the city of God, is one permitted to eat this portion of his crop: only before the Temple, and only before God. Eating before God elevates what seems to be a solely gastronomic event into the realms of the sacred and divine. The Torah (Devarim 14:23) explains that fulfilling this mitzva, according to its laws, will teach one "to fear the Lord your God all of his days." The experience of feasting in Jerusalem will remain with the person throughout the year. Similarly, the events of Hakhel transform a simple reading of the Torah into a mass renewal of our faith, an experience meant to transform our lives for the future.
We explained previously that, independent of the requirement to learn what the Torah says, there is a need to "hear" and to "listen" to the words of the Torah. Hearing is normally understood as the physical, mechanical method of recording information. This concept of physical hearing is relevant to the recital of the Shema. One must say the Shema loud enough to hear the words he is reciting. This, however, is not the concept of "hearing" referred to in Hakhel.
What is the nature of this "hearing?" What is its purpose? And how is it attained?
When listing the laws of Hakhel, the Rambam (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6) explains how a ger (stranger or convert) participates:
"The gerim who are not familiar with the Torah must prepare their hearts, and listen with their ears in order to hear, in fear, and in awe, in joy, and in trepidation, as on the day the Torah was given at Sinai. Even great scholars, who know the entire Torah, must listen with great intensity."
It is quite clear that hearing is required not only in order to learn. Even Gedolei Torah, who have read through Devarim numerous times, must listen with the same level of intensity required of a young lad or a convert, who are only beginning to learn. The "hearing" required is of an internal nature. The word of God must be internalized. Once one reaches this level of "hearing," it will affect his inner emotional and spiritual dimensions. Our fear and awe of the Almighty will thus be increased and intensified.
This aspect of Hakhel is present in our daily lives. In our day-to-day learning, we must strive to achieve this aspect of "hearing." How do we approach our learning? Is it just the dry accumulation of facts and information? Is it merely the analysis of texts, the understanding of laws and their underlying principles? Is this the extent of our learning?
I pray not. An approach of this nature might lead to deep conceptual understanding, but it will not lead to the fear of God. It will not create the groundwork for "ve-lamdu le-yir'a" - "they will learn to fear."
Our learning must be accompanied by two kinds of emotion: passion and joy on the one hand, and fear, trepidation, and awe on the other. The concepts and principles which we learn must not only be understood, but also internalized. They must form our spiritual personality. The Torah we learn must also remain within us, just as the experiences of hearing the king read the Torah at Hakhel and of feasting in Jerusalem before God must be remembered in the years to come.
The years that one spends in Yeshiva are, in a way, years of Hakhel. Learning has two aspects. One aspect is the learning itself. King David requested from God that he die a day earlier, enabling him to receive a proper funeral. God answered David that one day of his learning is more beloved to Him than a thousand sacrifices Shlomo offers. Learning itself, swimming in the waves of God's divine ocean, reading a Rashi, explaining a Tosafot, are beloved before the Almighty.
The other aspect of learning is demonstrated by Hakhel. Learning leaves an imprint on one's soul; it forms and develops one's personality. It remains with a person day to day, year to year, and shemitta to shemitta.
This second aspect of learning is paramount for the years you spend in Yeshiva. You sit in the Beit Medrash, not as King David did on his last day, but rather as the young and impressionable did at the Hakhel. You must take full advantage of these years, for they will determine the type of household that you will build, athe type of education your children will receive.
Learning the words of Torah alone will not suffice. You must internalize what you learn. You must "hear" them, "listen" to them, as if they were being read by the king at Hakhel or by the mouth of God at Har Sinai. Only if your learning is accompanied by this type of "hearing" will it bring you to the ultimate goal of fearing God. Only then will it endure.
"How?" you ask. Is it indeed possible to hear in this way? How can we prepare ourselves to "hear" properly?
There are three things you must understand and always remember.
First, you must open yourself up emotionally. You must be sensitive to the feelings involved in Torah learning: love, fear, joy, passion, trepidation. Without first opening your heart, nothing can find its way in.
Second, you must constantly understand and visualize that you are standing in front of the Almighty. You must accept "ol malkhut Shamayim" - the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. You must see yourselves as if you are standing in Jerusalem at the Hakhel assembly, standing in God's presence at Har Sinai, standing in God's court.
Third, you must learn with the recognition and understanding that the words you are reading are the words of God. These words are "devar Hashem!" They were written by God's own Hand, so to speak.
If you learn with these three ideas before your eyes, then you will "hear" the words of the Torah. If your learning is of this nature, these years in Yeshiva will be a "Hakhel." The effects of learning will bring you to fear God, and will also remain with you in the years following your time in the Yeshiva. Then you will able to fulfill the goal as stated in the verse: "You will learn to fear the Lord your God all your days."
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Vayelekh 5756 .)