The Torah in Parashat Vayelekh introduces the mitzva of hakhel, which requires Am Yisrael to assemble in its entirety in Jerusalem during Sukkot following the shemita year, and hear the reading of the Torah by the king.
The Sefat Emet (Vayelekh, 5642) asserts that the hakhel reading was a supernatural event, in that the entire nation was capable of hearing the king’s reading. Naturally, there would be no possibility of one man’s voice reaching the ears of all the men, women and children of Benei Yisrael. The Sefat Emet explains that this miracle occurred in the merit of the mitzva of shemita, the people’s observing a year-long hiatus from agricultural work, during which all produce was declared ownerless and became freely available to all members of the nation. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 1:1) famously comments that the verse in Tehillim (103:20), “…those powerful in strength, who perform His will” refers to those who faithfully observe the law of shemita, displaying extraordinary faith by refraining from all agricultural work during the seventh year. The Sefat Emet adds that the conclusion of this verse – “to listen to the sound of His word” – refers to hakhel, which takes place at the conclusion of the shemita year. In the merit of the “powerful strength” of faith and courage displayed by farmers during shemita, they “listen to the sound of His word” – they are capable of hearing the words of the Torah read by the king during hakhel.
The Torah explains that hakhel must be conducted “in order that they listen and in order that they learn to fear to Lord your God and ensure to perform all the words of this Torah” (31:12). The hakhel ceremony is intended to serve a source of inspiration, a means of injecting within the people fear of God and a desire to fulfill His laws. The Sefat Emet’s comments, symbolically, give us some perspective on this goal. How can the words of Torah reach and penetrate the hearts of every member of Benei Yisrael? How exactly does this work? The Sefat Emet answers this question by asserting that hakhel was the culmination of the process, not a catalyst. The special inspirational effect of hakhel was made possible by the people’s remarkable yearlong sacrifice and unparalleled display of devotion, abandoning their fields and placing their trust in God. Neither hakhel nor any other inspiring religious experience will have an effect if we are unwilling to make difficult sacrifices and invest effort. The inspiring experience of hakhel was incapable of evoking fear of God on its own; its effect came only after the people showed their devotion. The message being conveyed, then, is that no inspirational experience can substitute for hard work and sacrifice, that in order to grow and improve, we need to put in genuine effort, rather than wait for some inspirational experience to “magically” uplift us.