By Rabbi Avremel Matusof
I recall when playing sports as a child, we would have random team huddles in the middle of the game. Sometimes we discussed the next play, but more often, it was about getting pumped up for the win. In the real world, militaries have parades, corporations host associate retreats, and extended families have reunions. Nothing imbues a soldier with fighting pride like a grand military parade, retreats galvanize business associates into a team with vision, and family reunions are about more than just getting to know more relatives.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Moshe gives the Israelites some final instructions before conquering and settling in the Land of Israel. The last two mitzvot recorded in the Torah are the obligations to write or own a Torah scroll, and for every Jew to come to the Holy Temple for the holiday of Sukkot in the year following the Sabbatical Shemitah year for the grand Hakhel event.
The fact that these two mitzvot serve as the roundup of all 613 means that they serve as important anchors for Jewish life - perhaps unnecessary during the 40 years we sojourned in the desert - but crucial to our survival in the Holy Land. Writing a Torah scroll was impossible before Moshe’s final day because the biblical narrative includes the events of his passing. It’s also obvious why the written record was only necessary once the divine messenger of G-d’s commandments was no longer with us. (Today, this mitzvah is observed through purchasing a letter in a Torah scroll or purchasing Torah books for personal study.)
But why do we need Hakhel? A mass assembly of men, women, and children is hardly the setting for innovative Torah discussion, and no new information was shared. So why must every Jew come to the same place, at the same time to hear the king read chapters from Deuteronomy?
Maimonides describes the awesome event as a reenactment of Matan Torah - the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. When all the Jews stood at the foot of the mountain and heard G-d speak to them the Ten Commandments, they learned nothing new. It was an empowering and elevating experience to set them on the path to be G-d’s ambassadors of divine light, moral clarity, and peace to the world. They were imbued with identity, purpose, and pride.
Living in the desert surrounded by G-d’s protective clouds and nourished by His heavenly food, that inspiration never waned. But the distractions of real life they would encounter in Israel and elsewhere posed a serious threat to the awareness of their global mission.
That’s why G-d instructed us to do Hakhel. The experience of standing together with all Jews in the holiest place on earth to hear G-d’s messenger recite such essential verses as Shema Yisroel and the Ten Commandments refreshed our ancestors’ Sinai inspiration. It motivated them to intensify their commitment to Jewish living and education and reminded them that every Jewish community or single individual must serve as an example of moral clarity and peace for all humanity.
Hakhel is the giant huddle that reminds us we are G-d’s team, but it can only happen in its biblically prescribed format when there is a Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Today Hakhel must be done by each and every one of us by gathering Jews together in a holy environment, sharing inspiring words of Torah with them, and doing Mitzvot together. Remind yourself and others that we are all part of a huge team of Jews spanning the generations back to Moshe, dispersed around the world, to bring G-d’s message to all humanity.
This is the Hakhel year. Please join the Hakhel Team and make at least one “Jew Huddle” this year.
Rabbi Avremel Matusof is a Madison native. He received his rabbinic ordination at the Rabbinic Talmudic College in NYC. Rabbi Avremel has traveled extensively to bring hope and direction to smaller communities, including Namibia, Ghana, China, Dominica, and Kauai, Hawaii. He moved back to the area with his wife, Chaya Mushka in the summer of 2011 as Director of the Young Jewish Professionals program (a Chabad of Madison affiliate), serving the growing professional population of the area.