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Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5777-2017

“Inspiring the Next Generation”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayeilech, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we read, what is to my mind, one of the most remarkable of all the Jewish observances in Jewish life, known as הַקְהֵל“Hak’hel.”

There are, for sure, many profoundly dramatic moments on the Jewish calendar.

As we stand before the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, facing the impending judgment of the Heavenly tribunal, we feel the profound majesty of Al-mighty G-d enveloping our very being.

On Passover, we recall, each year, the power and the grandeur of the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, as we reenact the redemption from Egypt at the seder.

Every week, the Jewish people joyously welcome the Sabbath, in order to better appreciate the Al-mighty’s acts of creation, and savor the benefits of G-d’s greatest gift to humankind, the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest.

And yet, despite these very special moments in Jewish life, it is impossible not to include the little-known ritual of “Hak’hel,” in the pantheon of G-d’s greatest gifts to His people.

In Deuteronomy 31:10, Moses commands the People of Israel to gather together for the special observance of “Hak’hel.” Every seven years, as they celebrate the festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem, the Children of Israel, led by the King of Israel, are to come together to read the Torah for all the people. Deuteronomy 31:12 states,הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ,  לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת , Gather together the people–-the men, the women, and the small children, and your stranger who is in your cities, so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear the L-rd your G-d, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah.

The ceremony of “Hak’hel,” takes place every seven years, immediately following the year of שְׁמִטָּהShemita, the year in which all the farmers allow their lands to lie fallow. During this entire year the land is given an opportunity to regenerate and the bodies and souls of the People of Israel are rejuvenated through physical rest and the study of Torah.

On the festival of Sukkot, during the year that immediately follows the sabbatical year, the king of Israel himself would rise to teach the people Torah. This very special occasion is intended to underscore the primacy of Torah study, by emphasizing that everyone, king, scholar, farmer, women and children, come together to experience this unprecedented educational celebration.

Rashi citing the Talmud Chagiga 3a, explains that the men come to the “Hak’hel” ceremony לִלְמוֹד –“lil’mod,” to study, the women, לִשְׁמֹעַ –“lish’moh’ah,” to hear, and the small children, לְתֵת שָׂכָר לִמֽבִיאֵיהֶם , to give reward to those who bring them.

This traditional interpretation raises questions about the efficacy of Torah education for women. After all, while the men come to “study,” women only come to “listen.”

This issue has been debated in the Talmud by the great scholars over the centuries. The majority of rabbinic opinions maintain that women must learn Torah too, so that they will know how to properly practice the mitzvot. The debate over the requirement to study is really regarding the Oral Code, the Talmudic exegesis of the written Torah. Obviously, without knowing the Oral Code, it would be impossible for the women to fulfill a good part of Jewish observance. Observant Jewish women must have at least an academic mastery of the Rabbinic interpretations of the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity and many other mitzvot, which comprise a major part of Jewish life.

The unresolved question is whether women must engage in the purely academic, scholarly side of Jewish learning, which does not impact on Jewish living and observance.

I would like to suggest that there is another way of interpreting the words of Rashi when citing the Talmudic tradition stating that the men come לִלְמוֹד , to study, and that the women come, לִשְׁמֹעַ , to listen or to hear.

A most profound educational insight, one that has bearing on the Talmudic citation in Rashi’s commentary, may be derived from the basic statement of faith that Jews recite daily: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ, השׁם אֶחָד , Listen, O Israel, the L-rd is your G-d, the L-rd is one.

The word, שְׁמַע –“Shemah,” cannot merely mean to “listen.” After all, the “Shemah” is a declaration of intense and deep faith in G-d, and cannot mean to only hear the words, to only mouth the words, or to allow the words to penetrate one ear and go out the other.

Shemah,” in this case, must mean that every Jew must strive to achieve a deep and profound understanding of G-d, as well as the nature of G-d, leading to total faith in Him.

While the men may come to the “Hak’hel” ceremony to study, to engage in the rigorous back-and-forth arguments about the meaning of the words and the lessons to be derived from the textual nuances, the women are there “lish’moh’ah,” to help derive the deep and profound spiritual messages that are hidden within the texts and the words of the Torah. While the men engage in analyzing the fine points of scholarship, the women discover and uncover the profound messages that lie within the text, and teach them to the men and children. While לִלְמוֹד means to learn, לִשְׁמֹעַ , means to understand, to absorb, to bring the message home and to allow it to penetrate one’s heart and mind, which is, of course, the most effective way of transmitting these teachings to future generations of family and young people.

And, finally, why does the Talmud state that the children are brought “in order to give reward to the parents who bring them”? Because a most profound lesson is conveyed to a child when parents, not caretakers, personally accompany their children to school, deeply affirming the value of education. The joint learning of child and parent has a most intense impact on the child, on the family and on Jewish future.

Like the celebration of “Hak’hel,” the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur afford Jews the world over a unique opportunity to study and to listen together as one united Jewish family. May the experiences of these High Holidays be a source of profound and positive impact on family and nation for the entire year to come, and may the year 5778 be a blessed one for all people.

May you be blessed.