Media and political operatives are calling my adopted home state, the state of Ohio, a battleground state. TV shows and newspapers are filled with pictures of crowds of Ohioans flocking to hear their favorite candidate.
What moves people to attend these meetings? First, they must wait several hours to clear security and be admitted. Once inside, the speeches they hear are usually just standard stump speeches, having been said many times before, and going to be said many times afterwards. They would have been able to see and hear the event on news broadcasts, or if they need more than a sound bite, on YouTube or on one of many websites. Why go to the trouble of attending a rally in person?
The answer comes directly from the people who attend. They will tell you that there is nothing like being part of something live. There is something in the air that is more than just the words of the speeches.
At these rallies, TV journalists often select parents with children, and ask them the question: Why did you bring your child?
The answer parents frequently give is that they wanted to their child (and themselves as well) to be a part of history. And even if the child doesn't understand the issues, he or she will absorb the feeling of the event. This will make a lasting impression that will most likely have an impact upon the child in the future.
Certainly, we can be well-informed about politics without ever setting foot in a convention hall or joining in a rally. Yet to sit at home, to keep a distance, is somehow not really to take part. By actually going out and joining physically with other people, in one place and for one purpose, something takes place that is unique—we are involved, we are participating, we are taking part.
The idea of "taking part" is vital to Jewish life. Every year at the Seder table, we speak of the need to participate and to relive the experience, not just to think about our history at arm's length: In every generation, each person is required to see themselves as if they had themselves gone out from Egypt.
The Torah sets forth another mitzvah which takes this idea of participation and raises it to the highest level. In the book of Deuteronomy, it describes an event that took place every seven years in which the entire Jewish nation convened as one. At this gathering, we would regenerate our sense of purpose as a people with a task to transform ourselves and the world.
"Hakhel et ha'am," gather together the people – the men, the women the children; whether native born or naturalized – at the end of the Sabbatical year, in Jerusalem, the entire nation together. Assembled there, everyone is to listen as the king reads the Torah, in order to hear and understand the Torah and in order to feel the awe of G‑d.
While one can know certain things at a distance – abstract things – awe is different. It is a profound personal feeling, not a detached thought. It is so profound that it imbues life with a sense of purpose and in so doing transforms it into something intensely meaningful.
And the Torah turns its special focus on the children. Why should children be at such a convention? What purpose does it serve for them?
The Torah says: The children, who do not know and who do not understand, will hear and learn to feel awe of G‑d all the days that you live on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to take possession.
This verse tells us that the inner experience of awe is something so fundamental, so deep, that it touches everyone without exception—that even the children are equal to their parents in this. In this hakhel gathering, each person can sense the purpose that has brought our people as a whole into existence and therefore, every single person, whether man, woman or child, is to be present on this occasion.
As we enter into this New Year on Rosh Hashanah, we move from a Sabbatical year to a year of Hakhel—gathering the people. It is a reminder to us of how Judaism is passed from one generation to another. Though our literature offers unparalleled intellectual challenge, Judaism is not merely an intellectual exercise. Though the Torah speaks of the infinite worth of each individual life, Judaism is not meant to be lived in isolation.
Children and grandchildren – and the child within all of us – thrive on the dynamic excitement of being a part of something great. All have a need to be a part of events that will create lasting memories. And they are inspired most by having their parents and grandparents participating along with them, side by side.
So join together with others this year. Be a part, not only of one historic election, but of a history which continues to change the world. Take your children and come together with your fellows and pray; learn Torah; express your love and solidarity with your people; do a mitzvah. Let us get together and participate in making history, in voting with our feet for concerted deeds of goodness and kindness that will hasten the revelation of the peaceful world that has been G‑d's goal from the start.