Then Moshe commanded them, saying, “At the end of (every) seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Sukkot, (after) the shemitta year … you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears. Assemble the people the men, the women, and the children … in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God …”
This parasha is known as Hakhel (assembly), based upon the command to “assemble the people.” The mitzva includes assembling all of Am Yisrael in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) during Sukkot of the year following shemitta and reading the Torah in their presence.
The Goal of Hakhel – Instilling Fear of God and Torah Observance
We may ask what the goal of Hakhel is and why the assembly is to take place specifically in the Beit HaMikdash. The Torah states the goal of Hakhel explicitly: to learn to fear God and to observe Torah; through hearing Torah and studying it, the people will come to fear God and observe all of Torah.
Manifestation of the Shechina within Am Yisrael and in the Beit HaMikdash
Why is it mandatory that the Torah study of Hakhel include the entire nation and why is the venue specifically the Beit HaMikdash? Why is this Torah study more suited to inspire fear of God and Torah observance than the individuals’ study at home?
The answer is that this Torah study enables greater manifestation of the Shechina, because the Beit HaMikdash is the prime locale for its manifestation and Am Yisrael is the nation within whom the Shechina is manifest.
Numerous pesukim (verses) relate to the manifestation of the Shechina within the Beit HaMikdash, among them “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” [Sh’mot 25:8] As well, the fact that the Shechina is manifest within the Nation of Israel is clarified in a number of pesukim, such as “For I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel” [Bamidbar 35:34]. Thus, we can understand that a mitzva performed by a multitude of Israelites conveys greater respect for the King of kings, and when all of Am Yisrael is gathered together in the Beit HaMikdash, they experience the manifestation of the Shechina on a very high level. For this reason, Torah study within the Beit HaMikdash especially inclines Am Yisrael to fear of God and to observance of all Torah, since Torah study there is in close proximity to God.
Thus, there are two advantages to the Hakhel event:
1) The very gathering of the entire Nation of Israel within the Beit HaMikdash;
2) The Torah study which takes place at Hakhel.
While Am Yisrael’s gathering within the Beit HaMikdash is a lofty event, it is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve a greater closeness to God and a higher level of sanctity. This opportunity may not be missed; one must not come to the Beit HaMikdash and deal with secular issues. The assembly in the Temple must be for the purpose of achieving a higher level of sanctity which will engender fear of God and observance of all of Torah. This purpose is fostered by the Torah which is heard at Hakhel.
Bringing Children to Hakhel
Another question concerning Hakhel is why the Torah requires the participation of children, who are unable to understand the Torah which is read at the event.
Malbim answers that while children will not understand the content of the Torah which is read at Hakhel, seeing all of Am Yisrael gathered to hear Torah will impress the sanctity of the event within their hearts.
In our times, we can see the gathering of tens of thousands of Jews, men women and children, at the Kotel during the Shalosh Regalim as an example of a gathering which is similar to Hakhel. Such a gathering is uplifting, both in terms of the sanctity of the place and in the meeting of a large and varied congregation which participates in the event. Such a gathering is uplifting and leaves an impression on the children who have been brought to it. The prayers recited at the Kotel add the dimension of spiritual content.
Strengthening the Spiritual Prior to Returning to Working the Fields
The Torah sets the timing of Hakhel is Sukkot following the Shemitta year, which raises two questions:
1) Why does Hakhel take place once in seven years, and specifically following the Shemitta year?
2) Why is Hakhel set specifically during Sukkot of the post-Shemitta year?
Meshech Chochma explains that following the Shemitta year, as the Nation of Israel return to working its fields after a full year during which agricultural work was prohibited; it faces the potential of being caught up in material matters. For this reason, the Torah presents a spiritually uplifting event which will strengthen the farmer in his return to his material pursuit.
Based upon Meshech Chochma’s comment, we can understand that the assembly takes place during Sukkot since this is the beginning of the agricultural cycle of the eighth year. Thus, Hakhel is timed to prepare the Israelite farmer spiritually for his return to his material endeavors.
Indeed, the Torah calls Sukkot “The festival of the ingathering at the departure of the year, when you gather in (the products of) your labors from the field …” [Sh’mot 23:16], indicating that gathering the produce is an integral part of the holiday. We may suggest that when the farmer gathers his produce, he must be aware of the fact that it is God’s providence and not his own labor which is the source of his success, as the verse states “You must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth” [Devarim 8:18]. Therefore, the holiday of Sukkot conveys the opportunity and the obligation to thank God for one’s agricultural success, and thereby to connect one’s practical world with sanctity and faith.
The parallel Between Hakhel and Sh’mini Atzeret
Sh’mini Atzeret also serves as an opportunity to strengthen spiritual power before returning to material activities. Unlike the other holidays, Sh’mini Atzeret does not commemorate any event or miracle, rather it is “As the day children part company with their father, who says ‘Your departure is difficult for me; please remain with me another day’” [Rashi, Bemidbar 29:36].
Sh’mini Atzeret concludes the great days of the month of Tishrei. Before leaving the holidays to return to their routine, the Nation of Israel is given an extra day to connect to God; to draw spiritual strength which will allow Am Yisrael to remain close to God even in its day to day work and not become bogged down in the material world. Am Yisrael draws this spiritual strength from the fact that Sh’mini Atzeret is also Simḥat Torah. In this sense, Sh’mini Atzeret is conceptually similar to Hakhel, providing spiritual strength in preparation for returning to the days of practical work.
The Connection Between the Beit HaMikdash and Eretz Yisrael
Hakhel expresses the connection between the Beit HaMikdash and all of Eretz Yisrael, whose relationship to each other is that of body and soul. The Beit HaMikdash is the soul of Israel and the Land its body. During Hakhel the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash flows into practical life within Eretz Yisrael, clarifying the level of the Land, which is unlike any other land, in that she is connected to the sanctity of the Temple.
The purpose of the lofty event of Hakhel is to imbue the Nation of Israel with fear of God and to bring them to fulfill mitzvot. Therefore, it includes all of Am Yisrael and the venue is the Beit HaMikdash, because these factors facilitate Am Yisrael’s spiritual elevation in the best manner possible. The timing – during Sukkot following the Shemitta year – is intended to strengthen Am Yisrael spiritually prior to returning to its agricultural work. Hakhel expresses the connection between the Beit HaMikdash and all of Eretz Yisrael. This connection allows sanctity to flow into practical life in Eretz Yisrael, and as such conveys the sublime level of the Land, in which life is connected to sanctity.
May it be God’s will that we merit having sanctity infused in our daily lives in Eretz Yisrael and thereby fulfill our national destiny to sanctify God’s name within the world, and in so doing, we shall hasten the Beit HaMikdash’s rebuilding, speedily in our days. Amen.