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09/11/2020 12:19:20 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Gathering In Spirit When We Can't Gather In Person

09/11/2020 12:02:49 PM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

It is more than a bit strange that while we are all experiencing various levels of isolation that  one of the two Mitzvot found in the second of this week’s Parshiyot, Parshat Vayeilech, is the Mitzvah of Hakel - the obligation of all of Bnei Yisrael to gather in Jerusalem once every seven years. 

Here is how the Sefer Hachinuch describe the Mitzvah:

להקהיל כל ישראל בחג הסכות - שנצטוינו שיקהל עם ישראל כולו אנשים ונשים וטף, במוצאי שנת השמטה בחג הסכות ביום שני בחג ולקרוא קצת מספר משנה תורה באזניהם, שהוא אלה הדברים

To gather all of Israel on the festival of Sukkot: That we were commanded that the people of Israel gather in its entirety - men, women, and infants - at the closing of the sabbatical year on the festival of Sukkot on the second day of the festival, and read a little from the book of Mishneh Torah in their ears, which is the book of Deuteronomy.

How odd it is for us to be reading about this grand gathering of the entirety of Bnei Yisrael when our ability to gather is curtailed.

הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְשָֽׁמְר֣וּ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃

Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.

How much do we yearn for an experience like this?!

Even though this Mitzvah is tied to visiting the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple, there have been attempts to recreate this Mitzvah in modern Israel as a commemoration of what was done when the Beit Hamikdash stood.

But, I was thinking about this Mitzvah in a different context. 

As I was studying this Mitzvah I began to ask myself is it possible to fulfill this Mitzvah, at least in spirit, without physically gathering? Are their elements of this Mitzvah that can apply to us, even as we are unable to gather in such large numbers. 

I think the answer is yes. 

Let’s start with the purpose of the Mitzvah. Here is how the Rambam understands it. 

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה לְהַקְהִיל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנָשִׁים וְנָשִׁים וְטַף בְּכָל מוֹצָאֵי שְׁמִטָּה בַּעֲלוֹתָם לָרֶגֶל וְלִקְרוֹת בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם מִן הַתּוֹרָה פָּרָשִׁיּוֹת שֶׁהֵן מְזָרְזוֹת אוֹתָן בְּמִצְוֹת וּמְחַזְּקוֹת יְדֵיהֶם בְּדַת הָאֱמֶת. 

It is a positive commandment to gather together the entire Jewish people - men, women, and children - after every Sabbatical year when they ascend for the pilgrimage holiday and to read so that they hear passages from the Torah that encourage them to perform mitzvot and strengthen them in the true faith

As far as the Rambam is concerned, the purpose of this Mitzvah is to strengthen our faith commitments. Of course, a gathering of all of Israel will make a unique impression, but the ability to be inspired and transformed by the words of the Torah is not reserved to such a situation.

We can turn to the words of the Rambam for guidance here.

In his Sefer HaMitzvot (book the describes the 613 Mitzvot according to his count) he writes this:

המצוה השלישית היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה, והוא שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו וציווייו ופעולותיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג, וזוהי האהבה המצווה עלינו [...] הנה ביארנו לך שבהסתכלות תבוא לידי השגה, וימצא לך התענוג ותבוא האהבה בהכרח.

The third mitzva is that we are commanded to love God (exalted be He), i.e. to meditate upon and closely examine His mitzvos, His commandments, and His works, in order to understand Him; and through this understanding to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. This is the goal of the commandment to love God.

Studying God’s mitzvot and commandments is a way to earn appreciation for and love of  God. 

I think this can work two ways. There is the purely intellectual element. That is, the more we study Torah, the more we realize the genius and beauty of the system of law set up by God.

Yet, there is another level, an emotional level, beautifully depicted by Rabbi Soloveitchik. In this illustration, God (the Shekhinah) is the mother and Torah is the daughter (princess).

He writes: “Can one meet the Mother Shekhinah alone without having s date to meet with Her daughter? No!  Whoever is eager to invite Mother Shekhina must first set up a meeting with Her daughter the princess. SHe always accompanies her, she is the princess’ mother, the princess’ friend and the princess’ chaperone, who does not leave her out of sight… The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Torah study) begins as an intellectual activity...However, once the activity is initiated, it turns into a great total experience of meeting Shekhina, of having a rendezvous with God.“

For Rabbi Soloveitchik, every moment of Torah study is an encounter with God as God and the Torah are one.

I would like to apply this to our current situation and our attempt to experience Hakel during this time. We can find inspiration. We can find God. It depends on our outlook and what we think about when we study Torah. We often talk abot Kavannah is prayer, but we should also practice Kavannah when we study Torah and take a moment to reflect on who we are meeting as we study.

There is another element of Hakel, and that is fellowship. The many linguistic similarities between the Sinai experience and Hakel, indicate that Hakel is a re-enactment of Sinai. One of the most outstanding aspects of Sinai was the unity of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Shai Held puts it beautifully when he writes: Israel’s covenant is, of course, about serving God, but it is also about the creation of a loving and just community. The Torah commands worship, but it also insists on deep and abiding interpersonal connection.” 

He points out that when Bnei Yisrael came to Mount Sinai the language changes form the plural to the singular and the Torah says: (Ex. 19:2)

וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

Israel encamped (Vayichan) there in front of the mountain, 

Rashi explains that they arrived כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד - as one person and with one heart.

The question is, how did THAT happen. People are different and there is strife and disagreement.

Rabbi Held quotes the Hassidic master Rabbi Isaac of  Worka who picks up on the linguistic similarities between the Hebrew word for Vayichan (encamped) and Chein (grace or charm).  He suggests that the people “sought and found what was charming and graceful in one another, and this enabled them to approach the mountain with a sense of cohesion and community.”

Here too, we do not need the actual Hakel to experience one of its elements - unity. Unity can exist when people see themselves as sharing a destiny and common goals. Unity exists when we do not allow economic differences to impinge on or connections with each other. 

In another beautiful insight, Rabbi Held points out that the reason why Hakel takes place on sukkot, is because while everyone is living in huts and experiencing the insecurity of a temporary dwelling, the possibility of real unity is heightened.  (He also notes that Hakel takes place at the beginning of the Shemitah year when debts are cancelled, further erasing the power of economic differences.)

Hakel is about being inspired by Torah and creating and celebrating our unity. It is true that we cannot gather like they did in ties of Hakel, but we can (and must) relive the elements of Hakel that are available to us. 

I have missed being with everyone. I have missed the large crowds on shabbat and the ability to spend time with people studying and visiting. 

I will miss the inspiration that comes from our congregation calling out Avinu Malkeinu and Shm’a Yisrael as one. 

Yet, I am comforted by these two ways of connecting. I try to remember that I can encounter God in my Torah study and feel His hand on my shoulder as I study His word.  I am comforted by knowing that I am part of a loving community, a community full of Chen (grace) that seeks out what is good and charming in each other. 

In reality, it was not the gathering that was the most important element of Hakel.  The coming together is what we would call the Maaseh HaMitzvah - the act of the Mitzvah, but the Kiyyum Hamitzvah - the fulfillment of the Mitzvah was really in the commitment to the Torah and to each other.  

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781