The Lessons of Hak’hel
Summarized by Shaul Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Moses commanded them, saying: At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of shemitta, in the feast of Sukkot, when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and the children, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law; and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land whither you go over the Jordan to possess it. (Devarim 31:10-14)
The Gemara (Chagiga 3a) records an interesting discussion about this mitzva, known as “hak’hel:”
Once R. Yochanan ben Beroka and R. Elazar Chisma went to pay their respects to R. Yehoshua at Pekiin. [R. Yehoshua] asked them: What new teaching was there at the beit midrash today?
They answered: We are your disciples and we drink your waters.
He said to them: Even so, it is impossible for a [session in a] beit midrash to have no innovation… What topic was discussed?
They answered: The parasha of hak’hel.
[He asked:] And how did [R. Elazar ben Azaria] interpret it?
[They replied:] The verse states, “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the children.” If the men came to learn and the women came to listen, why did the children have to come? In order to reward those who brought them.
[R. Yehoshua] said to them: That was a precious gem in your hands, and you wished to deprive me of it?
What is so precious about this “gem” – this innovation that children must be brought to the hak’hel ceremony in order to make those who bring them deserving of reward? In fact, the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya are themselves a clear contradiction of what we are told in the Torah. The Torah explicitly states that the purpose in bringing young children is that “their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God.” In other words, the children come – even though they understand nothing of what they hear – simply in order to learn fear of God. Seemingly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya is contradicting the plain text!
What strikes me as the essence of the hak’hel ceremony is its re-enactment of Sinai. The listeners are men, women and children. According to the Gemara, the men come in order to learn – for men are commanded to engage in study. The women come in order to hear: hearing usually connotes an inner connection with what is being heard, beyond mere study. The children come in order to absorb the atmosphere, even though they do not understand everything that is going on around them.
Sometimes we say to ourselves, “I’m not impressed by atmosphere and by externals,” or “I want to understand and don’t need an emotional connection.” The hak’hel ceremony teaches us to absorb and make the most of every aspect of the occasion. There are people who, when exposed to a learned, complicated proof, will understand nothing, yet sometimes these very people demonstrate immense power of Torah and of fear of heaven. “To give reward to those who bring them” means learning a lesson from the children. A person may bring his children, wondering at the same time why he is bringing them, but then he witnesses the child’s excitement and the fear of God that the child attains – and this should signal to the parent to learn from the child and to absorb some of that aspect of the occasion, too.
People gather for hak’hel in order to learn, but at the same time it is important to know that the Torah also addresses itself beyond the intellectual level; there is always an aspect of inner, soul-connection with things. We, as yeshiva students, must be aware of this aspect, and be prepared to internalize it and absorb it into ourselves.
Another point that must be learned from hak’hel is the need for every individual to find his or her own way in Judaism. The categories in the Gemara clearly are not absolute; there are women who are learned scholars and men who are sensitive listeners. Each person must utilize his own unique personality within this great occasion and make the most of it. We must accept that every person has his own personal way and approach in absorbing Torah – so long as it is within the framework of Torah. There may be a person who absorbs half by learning and half by listening; another person may connect better through investing a quarter of his attention and energy in listening and the rest in study. All these are legitimate and possible within the world of Torah.
The Gemara in Berakhot asks what the nine blessings of the Amida prayer of Rosh ha-Shana correspond to, and answers that they correspond to Chana’s prayer. Chana prayed for a son and merited to have her prayer answered, but a closer look at her prayer shows that its content is not mainly about a son, but rather about concern for all of Am Yisrael. Chana takes herself beyond the confines of her own private problem and considers first the general problems of the nation. We all stand in prayer, during the Yamim Nora’im, to plead for ourselves and our own lives, but we must also remember the nation; the focus of our prayer should be Am Yisrael, not ourselves as individuals.
Here the two subjects converge. At the hak’hel ceremony, too, a person is meant to be receptive to everything – not only to himself and his own needs. The most important idea is that we belong to a nation whose foundation is its public life, and when we approach God as a community, as a congregation, then God does not reject our prayers. We must ask, in our prayers, for things that will be for the benefit of Am Yisrael in general. The hak’hel ceremony is built on the participation of the entire nation, including all its sectors and groups, and it should be our prayer that this should become the reality for us today, too. We pray that all those groups that are not connected to the world of Torah should find their place within this world, such that we may merit the building of the Beit Mikdash by the entire nation, together – men, women and children.
(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Nitzavim 5763 .)