Ever change your mind after reading something? In the course of translating an essay I was stimulated to rethink a principle I once held dearly: suspicion and avoidance of large crowds. I believed that babies and small children had no place in crowds since they don’t understand what is going on and may disturb. And we know how mass gatherings can be used for nefarious as well as efficacious purposes.
But while translating an essay on Hakhel by Rabbi Haim Sabato from Hebrew to English, I reevaluated my opposition to crowds. (BTW two ceremonies in remembrance of the Hakhel took place during Hol Hamoed Sukkot). I changed my mind on the issue of crowds due to an insight of the Malbim that R. Sabato cites in his essay on Hakhel…
….Hakhel is the once-in-seven years assembly commanded in Devarim to be held during hol hamoed Sukkot. I will cite only the Malbim’s commentary, one of several commentaries cited in the original essay from R. Sabato’s book on parashat hashavua Ahavat Torah. For the whole essay see the Jerualem Post “Hakhel:Bring the kids” (that I co-translated with Jessica Setbon.)
Malbim focuses on the questions: Why bring taf, and why the term bneihem? Devarim (31:10-13) states:
“At the end of seven years, at the time of the shmita during the Succot festival, in the place that He will choose, you will read this Torah before all Israel. Assemble [hakhel] all the people – the men, the women, and the little ones [taf], and your stranger who is in your cities – so that they will hear, learn and fear the Lord. And their children [bneihem] who do not know – they will hear and learn to fear the Lord.”
Why bring little ones who won’t get anything out of this assembly. Or will they?
Malbim maintains that it is precisely because infants and toddlers have not yet begun formal learning that their souls are still malleable – a concept somewhat similar to the tabula rasa of Locke and Rousseau. Therefore, the mass assembly at Hakhel for spiritual purposes would have an even greater effect on infants. The Malbim describes, with deep psychological insight, the impression this event makes on a small child’s soul.
“This refers to the very small children, and to giving them a taste of Torah. Since they will not understand the meaning of the words read out, they will not be distracted by the message. They are not jaded, and are still unspoiled by the vanities and burdens of this world, thus their imagination is very powerful. They will not benefit in the manner of adults, who seek to savor every morsel of Torah. Rather, they will benefit in a more powerful way than the adults, because this experience will remain in their minds’ eye all their lives.”
How will such a crowd impact tots?
“They will directly experience the awesome sight of millions of Jews standing united for hours, transported beyond commonplace concerns and focused with all their beings on their sole purpose: to hear the lessons that the king is reading from the book. They will understand that in a similar way they must listen and learn from their teachers. As they watch the immense crowds standing in fear and trembling before the Lord, the reverence that the king inspires will add to that awesomeness. The indelible impression of what they witnessed in their infancy will remain with them their entire lives.”
After reading this I understood why many bring their little ones to exceptionally large prayer services or Torah gathering. Despite, or because of, the fact that toddlers may not understand a thing, they will be impressed with the immensity, the focus on Torah and prayer, and the solemnity (as long as they do not disturb the decorum).
In Israel, Hakhel raises another issue. There were two Hakhel-like assemblies this Sukkot in Jerusalem. Wednesday (16bTishri, 15 OCt) there was a ceremony in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City Jerusalem sponsored by the Temple Institute. I put on my reporter’s hat and went to the one Wednesday. But I soon became a partipant-observer among the thousands of men, women and taf from all sectors(secular, traditional, NR, Litvishe, Chassidic) who came to listen to rabbinic leaders (among them R.Yaakov Ariel, R.Shlomo Riskin, R.Yuval Cherlow, R.Nahman Kahana) read portions of Devarim, to hear the trumpets, and to see the kley mikdash. The crowds were calm, attentive, and easy-going, but I well understood the controversial aspects of it. Many rabbis oppose reenacting Hakhel today for a number of reasons. This opposition goes back 120 years ago to the Kuntress L’Zecher Hamikdash by the Jerusalem Rabbi E. David Rabinowitz-Teomim, who wanted to revive Hakhel in modern times. When reading the Temple Institute material on Hakhel, I don’t feel comfortable and wonder whether there isn’t some misplaced emphasis. That is why the event on Thursday (17 bTishri, Oct.16) at the Wall was purposely named „Hachnasat Sefer Torah L’zecher Hakhel” and was organized by rabbis from the more haredi end of the spectrum. The differences in relating to Hakhel reflect differences in hashkafa between the national-religious and haredi sectors.
Two questions emerged from my ruminations on Hakhel.
a) I wonder if others have ever changed their minds due to a specific teaching they studied.
b) The existence of the two different ceremonies – does it represent divisiveness or vitality?