Shabbos Vayeilech, 57751

The Big Lecture

A university professor gave a final exam in a giant large lecture hall, jammed with thousands of students. After the time was up, one student continued writing for a minute. The professor said that because the student went overtime, he would receive a zero on the exam.

The student stood up, walked to the front of the lecture hall, and asked the professor, “Do you have any idea who I am?”

The professor replied, “No, I do not, and it makes no difference to me at all.”

“Good,” replied the student as he stuffed his exam into the middle of the pile of exams and ran out the door.

* * *

In this week’s Torah reading, we read about what sounds like the world’s biggest Torah class. “Hakhel es ha’am,” the Torah tells us. “Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the L‑rd, your G‑d, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah.”2

This mitzvah was carried out in Temple times once in seven years, at the end of the Shemita cycle. On the first intermediate day of Sukkos, the entire Jewish nation would gather on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to see the king ascend a wooden platform and read sections of the Torah.

The Rambam explains3 that even those who do not understand the words of the Torah reading were obligated to be there and “listen with awe, reverence, and joyful trepidation as on the day that Torah was given at Sinai.” At the same time, “even great scholars already versed in the entire Torah [were] obligated to listen with great concentration” as well.

What was the purpose of this mass Torah reading? And why was every Jew from the most uneducated to the greatest sage required to attend? What were they supposed to gain? Also, could everybody actually hear? There were millions of Jews on the Temple Mount and there was no microphone or PA system. Plus, can you imagine the shoving?

I understand, it’s a mitzvah and we do mitzvos without questioning. But as Jews we try to understand mitzvos as well. So what did this mass Torah reading accomplish? If once in seven years everybody needs a “refresher course,” then maybe it would be better to have teachers go out and put together small classes according to skill level?

The answer to these questions about Hakhel actually touches upon the very essence of what it means to live a Jewish life. Because if we will understand this, then we will also understand the true path to a relationship with G‑d.

Zorba the Greek

Gordon Zacks was an industrialist, philanthropist, author and presidential adviser. In his younger years, he served as chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet of the UJA and delivered the keynote at the 1969 annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federations to 3,000 Jewish leaders where he proposed creating a $100 million fund to support an institute to foster Jewish education and identity among youth.

In January of 1970, shortly after giving this speech, he had a meeting with the Rebbe in 770. Some 30 years later he tried to reconstruct the meeting:

“I am escorted into the Rebbe’s study,” recalls Zacks, “And I'll never forget it if I live to be a hundred. There were books piled all the way to the ceiling, all around the office. He stands up and he doesn’t say welcome, he doesn't say hello. He says, ‘Mr. Zacks, I have read your speech and it is clear to me that you have taken good care of your mind. I can look at you and it’s clear to me that you have taken good care of your body. But what are you doing for your soul?’”

The Rebbe and Zacks then discussed the need to raise money for Jewish education and what Jewish education really means. Zacks argued that there needed to be a way to educate Jews without promoting halachic observance.

“Do you believe in revelation?” the Rebbe suddenly asked him.

“I believe in G‑d but I am not sure I believe in revelation,” answered Zacks.

Zacks relates that the Rebbe explained to him that he should not be trying to think himself to G‑d. “You can’t think yourself to G‑d,” Zacks quotes the Rebbe as saying. “You have to experience being Jewish. And in the living of a Jewish lifestyle, you will discover G‑d.” The Rebbe suggested that he try learning with a mentor who practiced Jewish life, and during the following year try living a fuller Jewish life himself.

Zacks said that he would have to… “think about that.”

“Did you ever read Zorba the Greek?” asked the Rebbe. Zacks said that he had. The Rebbe then asked whether Zacks recalled how Zorba turns to the student and asks him, ‘What is the use of your books? If they can't tell you the purpose of life, what good are they?’

The Rebbe then brought it back to Zacks, telling him he’s got to release himself “from this mental approach to life and G‑d” and instead embark on a “journey of the heart.”4

See It

So to answer our question, the purpose of Hakhel was never to be “the world’s largest Torah class.” The purpose of Hakhel was to have a Torah experience. In the words of the Rambam quoted earlier: “to listen with awe, reverence, and joyful trepidation as on the day that Torah was given at Sinai.” In other words, the purpose of Hakhel was that once in seven years, the people should relive the Sinaic experience of revelation.

What does it mean that Sinai was a revelation?

The main innovation at Sinai was not the giving of the Torah or the mitzvos. The Jewish people had access to Torah and mitzvos even before Sinai. The main feature, the signature of what made the event at Sinai unique, was seeing.

“And all the people saw the thunder and the lightening….”5 “You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you.”6 “Behold, the Lord, our God, has shown us His glory and His greatness….”7

The difference between seeing and hearing is that what one hears remains abstract while what one sees becomes tangible and concrete. One can talk about spiritual ideas, philosophies. That’s hearing. And it remains theory. But when one has an opportunity to see spirituality, it becomes real.

That’s just what happened at Sinai. We saw. And that’s what was recreated every seven years in Jerusalem with the smooshing together with the huge crowd. The point wasn’t to hear a Torah class but to be there and to see, to have a real live Torah experience.

An Opportunity

The shliach and illustrious chasidic scholar, Rabbi Zalman Posner, would come to 770 for the Rebbe's yearly 12-13 Tammuz farbrengen. “One year, a bit weary of the shoving,” he recalled, “I figured I could ‘beat the system’ by standing in the back near the new loudspeaker. Although I wouldn’t see so well, I would certainly get pushed around less and I would actually be able to hear much better what the Rebbe was saying.”

Later, R’ Zalman learned that at one point in the farbrengen, the Rebbe turned to his father and asked, “Where is Zalman?” When there was no answer, the Rebbe turned to R’ Zalman’s father-in-law and asked, “Where is Zalman?” Again no answer.

The next day, R’ Zalman met privately with the Rebbe.

“Where were you yesterday, Reb Zalman? We were looking for you.”

R’ Zalman sheepishly explained that he was standing in the back near the loudspeaker so he could hear better.

“Ach,” said the Rebbe with a warm smile, “Once a year you have an opportunity to get crushed and you stand so far?!”

Hakhel in Our Time

The Biblical mitzvah of Hakhel is only in effect when all the Jewish people reside in the Holy Land and will be reinstated with the coming of Moshiach. Nevertheless, the Rebbe repeatedly encouraged all Jews to make their own Hakhel gatherings of all sizes to live and experience Judaism.

(The Rebbe particularly encouraged these assemblies on or around the upcoming holiday of Sukkos, when the Hakhel gathering took place in the Holy Temple, but he emphasized that the entire year is a Hakhel Year and appropriate for this kind of assemblage.)

It’s not enough to hear. We need to see. We need to experience revelation. We need to get smooshed a little.

Invite your friends over to your house on Shabbos for a big meal. Start a ‘lunch-and-learn’ at the office. Help your kids invite their friends over for a Shabbos party. Get the whole town together or join with Jews from other towns.

The main thing is to show up and have an experience. May we have the ultimate experience of seeing G‑dliness with the coming of Moshiach now. Good Shabbos.