By Elie Mischel
In Biblical times, every seven years, immediately following the Sabbatical year, the people of Israel would gather together in the Temple courtyard for an awesome and unique event on the second day of the holiday of Sukkot. On this day, they would fulfill the commandment of Hakhel, the Great Assembly.
“And Moshe instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, [at the end of] the Sabbatical year, at the festival of Sukkot, when all of Israel comes to appear before Hashem your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere Hashem your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-12)
On that day, trumpets sounded throughout the streets of Jerusalem as the people of Israel gathered together in the Temple courtyard, where the king of Israel sat upon a great wooden platform erected specially for the occasion. The High Priest brought a Torah scroll to the king, who read selected passages from the book of Deuteronomy as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children stood and listened.
In contrast to other commandments, the Bible emphasizes the importance of bringing children to this Hakhel gathering: “you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children…” Though this sounds like a beautiful family experience, it probably wasn’t easy to bring the kids!
Imagine the scene – it’s a hot day, and hundreds of thousands of people are streaming into the Temple courtyard. Young mothers and fathers are pushing strollers with crying babies, carrying diaper bags with bottles and snacks, while trying to hold onto their older children’s hands in the midst of all the commotion. One child needs to use the bathroom, while another one cries that he is hungry and wants to go home. It sounds like a sweaty, exhausting experience for everyone!
Why was it necessary to bring the kids to this great assembly of Hakhel? Why did God specifically include young children in this commandment?
Two thousand years ago, the Rabbis praised their colleague, Rabbi Joshua the son of Hananya, in an interesting way. They said of him: “fortunate is the one who gave birth to him.” Why was Rabbi Joshua praised in this way?
The Talmud explains that Rabbi Joshua’s mother was a unique woman who desperately wanted her son to grow up to be a Bible scholar. And so every day, when her son Joshua was a baby, she would place his crib near a study hall, so that her son would hear nothing but words of Bible study – even as an infant! And it was this experience that set her son, who eventually became the great Rabbi Joshua, on the path to greatness. He became one of the great scholars of his generation!
When I first read this story, it seemed strange – even a bit ridiculous! Does it make any sense to bring a baby, a one-year old boy, to a study hall? What kind of impact could this possibly have on a child still learning his first words? And yet – the facts are the facts. Rabbi Joshua became a great Torah scholar. And the credit is given to his mother!
Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil once asked Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz for advice on raising children. Rabbi Steinsaltz explained: “Don’t only teach your children things that they can understand. Just because they can’t understand something is no reason to avoid teaching it.”
As an example, Rabbi Steinsaltz discussed the importance of teaching children to pray. Though children certainly do not understand the deeper meaning and significance of the prayers, it is essential to teach them these prayers when they are young. For education is not purely, or even primarily, an intellectual act. So much of education comes not from learning about a commandment, but rather from doing and fulfilling a commandment!
Children may not understand the deep spiritual significance of performing acts of kindness for those who are suffering. But if they actively help others, if they perform acts of kindness, they will absorb the importance of acts of kindness; it will become part of who they are!
This is what happened to Rabbi Joshua. Surrounded by the sounds of Bible study as a young child, the Bible became part of his very identity, even before he understood its words and teachings. And this is why God commanded the entire nation – men, women, and children – to participate in the Hakhel gathering. It’s true that the young children likely did not understand the verses read aloud by the king in the Temple courtyard. But simply being there, feeling the energy and excitement of the crowd in the presence of the Temple – it was an experience that surely left a lasting impression on everyone who was there – including the children! The sights, sounds, and wonder of Hakhel made an impact that would not soon, if ever, be forgotten.
Without a Temple, we are not yet able to fulfill the holy commandment of Hakhel today in its ideal form. But the lessons of Hakhel are as important today as they have ever been.
Hakhel reminds us that children are deeply impressionable, constantly learning and soaking up life experiences like a sponge! And it is our job, as parents and grandparents, to bring them with us and give them the holy experiences that will one day shape their very identity.