Rabbi Frand on Parshas Nitzavim / Vayelech
These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Torah Tapes on the weekly Torah portion: Tape# 112, Shoteh: Mental Incompetence in Halacha. Good Shabbos!
Hakhel Reenacts the Receiving of the Torah at Sinai
This week’s parsha contains the mitzvah of ‘Hakhel’. Once every seven years, following the end of the Shmita year, the King gathered all of Israel (who were already in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Succos) and read to them portions from the book of Devorim.
The Sefer HaChinuch writes, concerning any person who neglects this mitzvah — for example a Jew who fails to attend or a King who fails to read the Torah, “…their punishment is very great, for this command is a fundamental pillar of the religion…”.
One would probably not have assumed that Hakhel is such an important mitzvah. ‘Hakhel,’ is a positive command (mitzvas aseh) that is only performed once every seven years. We might assume that Lulav or Matzah or Tefillin or Krias Shma are more important mitzvos. Yet, regarding those mitzvos, the Sefer HaChinuch does not write “and their punishment is very great…”.
What significance does the Chinuch see in this mitzvah? Rav Hutner, zt”l, in a lengthy introduction to a reprint of a sefer of the Ram”o (Darkei Moshe HaAruch) gives us an insight into what the mitzvah of Hakhel is really all about and why it is so important. He bases his thesis on two inferences from the Ramba”m.
The Ramba”m [Hilchos Chagiga 3:3] lists the sequence of the chapters in Devorim which were read at Hakhel: “From the beginning of the book of Devorim until the end of the parsha of ‘Hear Oh Israel (Shma)’; then he skips to ‘And it will be if you will listen (V-haya im Shamoa)’ then he skips to ‘You shall surely tithe (aser t-aser)’ and reads from ‘You shall surely tithe’ in sequence until the end of the ‘Blessings and Curses’ until the words ‘besides the Covenant which He entered into with them at Horeb’ and then he stops (u’posek)”.
Rav Hutner asks, why does the Ramba”m have to say the word “u’posek”? If he tells us we have to read from here to there and he tells us the last words then obviously, that is where we stop. Why does he make a point of telling us “and that is where he stops”?
A second insight: The Ramba”m in Hilchos Chagiga [3:7] refers to Hakhel as “The Day of Hakhel” (Yom Hakhel). This is a strange expression which we do not find in the Talmud. What is the Ramba”m trying to tell us?
Rav Hutner says that the essence of the ceremony of Hakhel is supposed to be the reenactment of ma’mad Har Sinai. It is the reenactment of the Kabalas HaTorah. The Accepting of the Torah is THE seminal event in Jewish History. In order to impress upon the people the importance of what Torah means to the Jewish People, every seven years we are to reenact Kabalas HaTorah. We want the people to feel as though they’ve gone through another Kabalas HaTorah.
A few weeks ago, here in Baltimore, we celebrated the reenactment of the Battle of Baltimore, a seminal event in American history — the composition of the Star Spangled Banner. For Baltimoreans, and for all Americans, that is a very important event. How does one commemorate that event? How does one make it live? How does one make future generations feel how important it was “that the flag was still there?” By reenacting it.
L’Havdil, we have something that is unbelievably important to us. That is something is Kabalas HaTorah. We want our people to relive that ‘Standing At Har Sinai’. How do we do that? By getting everyone together and reading the Torah.
That is why the Ramba”m says the word “u’posek”. The words immediately preceeding “u’posek” are “until the words ‘besides the Covenant He entered into with them at Horeb (Mt. Sinai)'”. We want those words to remain ringing in the people’s ears! We want to conjure up lasting memories of Horeb, of Har Sinai. Therefore, the King must dramatically stop his reading right there. To read one more word beyond ‘Horeb’ would have diluted the impact, destroying the whole point of Hakhel.
That is also why the Ramba”m refers to Hakhel as ‘Yom Hakhel’. Rav Hutner points out that if we take away the vowels of ‘Yom Hakhel’ it is precisely the same letters as ‘Yom HaKahal’ (the Day of the Congregation) which the Torah repeatedly uses [Devorim 9:10, 10:4, 18:16] to refer to the ma’mad Har Sinai.
This is Hakhel — the living and the reenactment of Kabalas HaTorah. Why? Because as Rav Sadyah Gaon tells us, “Our Nation is not a Nation except through Torah”. For some, the idea that ‘We Are A Nation Because of Torah’ is a great novelty (chiddush gadol). There have been thousands and millions of Jews who haven’t always believed that. There have been Jews who have believed that we are a Nation by virtue of a land; without a land we’re not a Nation. Says Rav Sadyah Gaon, “No; We are a Nation only through Torah.”
There are some people that believe we are a nation through our language. There were some people that believed that the key to the Jewish people was Yiddish — Yiddish plays and Yiddish songs and Yiddish events. They’re no longer around. The only people still around who, in fact, read or speak Yiddish are the people that they thought would never make it.
There are a people that thought we are a Nation through our culture. No! Our Nation is not a nation except through Torah. That’s what makes us a people. That’s what binds us together. The Standing Together at Sinai; Accepting Torah; Learning Torah. That is what makes us Jews. The Torah, the mitzvos, nothing else. Not culture, not language, not history, nothing — except Torah. This is what Hakhel tries to accomplish.
Mah Inyan “Fiesta Bowl” Etzel the Reenactment of Har Sinai After Shmita? [What is the connection between the Fiesta Bowl and the reenactment?]
Now we have to wonder… If the point of this mitzvah is to bring home how central Torah it is to Jews, when would we expect to schedule this event which occurs once in seven years?
I’ll tell you the year in which I would not schedule Hakhel. I wouldn’t make Hakhel after the Shmita year. That is seemingly when you need Hakhel the least.
What did Jews do during the Shmita year? What happened to an agrarian society in a year when one could not plant and sow and harvest? Jews sat and learned for an entire year. That is what the Shmita year was all about. The Jews recharged their spiritual batteries, learning most of the day. There was nothing else to do.
So, after Jews have just finished an entire year of learning and they now recall how important learning is — is this when we need a ‘Hakhel’? Is this when we have to, again, read to them the Torah? Isn’t it enough that we’ve been learning Torah for this entire year? Now is the time when we have to learn more?
There is a lesson in this. The lesson is that one who really loves something, can never get enough of it. One may have learned the entire year, but this — G-d says — is when I want you to learn more Torah; it is precisely now that you can learn the lesson that there is never such a thing as getting enough of Torah, or getting tired of Torah.
I hate to give this example, but come and see. “We toil and they toil…”
We know what happens on December 31 and January 1. People sit down and watch the first football game. They go to sleep, having just finished one game. Then they get up the next morning and there’s the first Bowl game of the day. Then by 12 o’clock there’s another game and by 4 o’clock there’s another game. And then that night of January 1 — there’s another game! One has seen the Cotton Bowl, one has seen the Sugar Bowl, one has seen the Rose Bowl. Does he really need the Fiesta Bowl?
And yet millions and millions of people after having watched it an entire day want one more game. And people pay millions of dollars to advertise on that last game because they know people will watch it! Why? Because if one loves football, one can never get enough of football. If one really loves something, he can never have enough.
That’s what Hakhel is. Hakhel says “Yidden! Torah is central to being a Jew. Our Nation is not a Nation without Torah. And we have to love it, almost be addicted to it. Even if we’ve had a solid year of it, still we want another vort, another shiur, another kashe and teretz, we want more — because it is so central to our lives.”
At the time of the year when we think, “how can we make next year better?” there’s always one area that is open to everybody: One can always find more time for learning. That is what the message of Hakhel is — there can never be enough of Torah Learning; because it is so central, so vital, because Our Nation is not a Nation except through Torah.
Shmita — Sabbatical year in which virtually all agricultural activity in the land of Israel stops during the seventh year of the “shmita cycle”.
ma’mad Har Sinai — the standing at Mt. Sinai
Kabalas HaTorah — Receiving the Torah
L’Havdil — To distinguish (usually between a secular or mundane matter and something with a degree of sanctity)
Yidden — (Yiddish term) Jews
Personalities & Sources:
Sefer HaChinuch — Classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner — 1907-1980, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta R. Chaim Berlin; New York. Collected discourses published as Pachad Yitzchak.
Ramba”m — R. Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) — 1135-1204; one of Judaism’s leading Torah authorities and philosophers. Major works: Commentary on Mishneh; Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law); Guide to the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim).
Rav Sadya Gaon — 882-942; Greatest scholar of the Gaonic period; as head of the yeshiva in Pumbedita, was the leader of world Jewry. Major work: Emunoth VeDeyoth (Jewish Philosophy); Arabic translation of the Torah; Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah.
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, Maryland.
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Torah Tapes on the weekly Torah portion (#112). The corresponding halachic portion for this tape is: #112 is: Shoteh: Mental Incompetence in Halacha. The other halachic portions for Parshas Nitzavim / Vayelech from the Commuter Chavrusah Series are:
- Tape # 022 – Reading Haftorah: Scrolls vs. Book
- Tape # 158 – S’char Shabbos: How Do We Pay Rabbonim and Chazzanim?
- Tape # 205 – Kiddush Before T’kiyas Shofar
- Tape # 252 – Buying Seforim
- Tape # 295 – Burying the Dead on Yom Tem Sheni
- Tape # 341 – The Brachos on the T’kious
- Tape # 342 – Is Building a Succah a Mitzvah?
Tapes or a complete catalogue can be ordered from:
Yad Yechiel Institute
PO Box 511
Owings Mills, MD 21117-0511
Call (410) 358-0416 for further information.
Also Available: Mesorah / Artscroll has published a collection of Rabbi Frand’s essays. The book is entitled:
and is available through Project Genesis On-Line Bookstore: http://books.torah.org/