We read in Parashat Vayelekh of the mitzva of hakhel, the nationwide assembly that is to be conducted in Jerusalem every seven years during Sukkot following the septennial shemita year, for a public reading of the Torah. The Torah emphasizes that all members of the nation must participate in the hakhel assembly – men, women and children (31:12).
The Gemara, in a famous passage in Masekhet Chagiga (31:12), tells that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya raised the question of why even young children are to attend hakhel. The question, seemingly, is that the children are incapable of understanding the content of the reading, such that there seems to be no purpose served through their participation. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s answer to this question is somewhat ambiguous: “To give reward to those who bring them.” At first glance, this seems to mean that there is, in fact, no practical benefit from including the young children, but the Torah nevertheless included them in hakhel in order to increase the parents’ reward, as they fulfill an additional mitzva by bringing their children with them to hakhel.
A bold approach to explaining Rabbi Elazar’s comments was advanced by the Tolna Rebbe. He suggested that Rabbi Elazar questioned not the value of including the children per se, but rather the value of the parents’ hakhel experience if it is accompanied by the need to tend to their children. Seemingly, the children’s attendance would compromise the impact of the hakhel experience upon the parents, who would be encumbered by their children’s needs throughout the hakhel assembly. The purpose of hakhel, as the Torah says (31:12), is to instill fear of God, to inspire the nation to commit themselves to the Torah’s laws. Why, then, would parents be required to bring young children, which would undermine their ability to focus on the reading and receive the full emotional impact of the experience?
Rabbi Elazar’s answer, the Rebbe explained, is that parents earn reward for tending to their children even – or especially – when this comes at the expense of their own spiritual growth. Parents are responsible to take the time to care for and educate their children despite the limits this work imposes on the time and energy available for their own quest for greatness. Rabbi Elazar thus noted that the Torah’s command to include children in hakhel should come as no surprise, for parents are indeed expected to lower their own spiritual ambitions for the sake of caring for their children.
On this basis, the Tolna Rebbe explained the account in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Chagiga 1:1) of Rabbi Yehoshua’s enthusiastic reaction upon hearing Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s comment about the children’s inclusion in hakhel. Rabbi Yehoshua exclaimed, “A generation in which Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya lives is not orphaned.” The simple meaning, it would seem, is that Rabbi Yehoshua extolled Rabbi Elazar’s brilliance, and thus noted that Rabbi Elazar’s generation is fortunate to have a great scholar and teacher, such that it cannot be considered “orphaned.” Additionally, however, the Tolna Rebbe explained that when we apply Rabbi Elazar’s teaching, we ensure that the young generation will not be “orphaned,” and detached from the previous generation. We ensure the perpetuation of our tradition and the continuation of the chain of Torah when we are prepared to make great sacrifices for the sake of educating the younger generation, including sacrifices in our personal spiritual ambitions. Rabbi Elazar’s comments regarding hakhel, Rabbi Yehoshua observed, bears great relevance to Torah education generally, emphasizing the extent of the sacrifice we must be prepared to make in order to teach the next generation of Jews, to ensure that they will not be “orphaned,” and will instead be inextricably linked to the preceding generations.