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Collective Wisdom (Sukkot)

During Temple times, the holiday of Sukkot was highlighted, once every seven years, by a momentous religious ceremony known as hakhel. Instituted by Moshe himself in the last days of his life, hakhel functioned as a national reenactment of the Sinai revelation. With the Jewish people in their entirety congregated in Jerusalem, the king would read aloud from the Torah scroll bearing the terms of Israel’s covenant with Hashem, thereby renewing that covenant before those assembled:

Then Moses commanded them, saying, “At the end of every seven years, at an appointed time, during the festival of Sukkot, after the sabbatical [shemittah] year, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose: you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears. Assemble [hakhel] 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 Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days that you live on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess” (Deut. 31:10-13).

The particulars of the hakhel ceremony offer much of interest. One detail that has garnered relatively little attention, however, is the curious time frame designated for this ceremony: “during the festival of Sukkot, after the sabbatical [shemittah] year.” What is the significance of hosting hakhel specifically then?

Perhaps we can understand why hakhel is held on Sukkot. Sukkot is one of three pilgrimage holidays during which the Jewish people journeyed en masse to Jerusalem. And whereas the first two of the pilgrimage holidays fall in the middle of the agricultural cycle, Sukkot marks the point at which the year’s bounty has been collected and is finally ready for consumption. As such, the festival of Sukkot presents an optimal window in which to hold hakhel; doing so then conveniently capitalizes on the pilgrims’ pre-mandated concentration in Jerusalem (thus Deut. 31:11: “when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose”), without disrupting a period of critical economic productivity (see Bechor Shor to Deut. 31:10).

Perhaps we can also understand why hakhel is aligned with the shemittah-cycle. As we have noted previously, the Sinai revelation and the laws connected with shemittah are intricately wound up with each other.  Thus, embedding hakhel—a renewal of the Sinai covenant—into the shemittah cycle is consistent with the thematic intersections that tie together these two institutions throughout the Torah.

Field-of-wheat-007But while we may be able to provide independent rationales for scheduling hakhel on Sukkot and for scheduling hakhel as part of the shemittah cycle, it is probably in the confluence of these two temporal coordinates that the meaning of hakhel’s scheduling truly lies. For, if you think about it, “the festival of Sukkot following the shemittah year” is about as contradictory of a calendrical combination as one could possibly concoct! Sukkot, after all, is the holiday of agricultural bounty—“chag ha-assif,” in the Torah’s terminology: the “festival of ingathering” (Exod. 34:22). Shemittah, meanwhile, is the exact opposite: it is the year during which, by Torah law, all agricultural activity grinds to a halt. So to observe Sukkot in the wake of shemittah must have posed a formidable theological challenge for the farmers of bnei Yisrael. After allowing their fields to lay fallow for twelve months, at Hashem’s behest, and after watching the stock in their silos slowly deplete, how much crop could there have been for them to “gather” once Sukkot rolled around? And how, in light of the year’s comparatively meager yield, were they supposed to fulfill in earnest the Torah’s charge of “rejoicing” on this festival (Deut. 15:14)?

Only with profound trust in Hashem could these farmers have professed gratitude for their material lot at a time like this—a time of relative material want. What better time, then, to stage the hakhel ceremony: a ceremony through which the entire nation reminds itself of its founding values; through which the entire nation recommits itself to its core beliefs; through which the entire nation restores its faith in Hashem by recalling His eternal pledge to tend to their economic needs, so long as they pursue those needs in a manner consistent with the religious ethics that He has laid forth for them. Precisely at that point when bnei Yisrael’s conviction in these principles is likeliest to waver—precisely at the point when the sacrifices made for the sake of spirituality are most acutely felt—precisely then is the hakhel ceremony held. In short: Hakhel is timed in such a way so as to strengthen the nation’s religious resolve specifically when that resolve is most in need of strengthening.

Yet the meaning of hakhel’s timing cuts deeper still. For it can be no mere coincidence that what accompanies the festival of “assif,” “ingathering,” in the year when that ingathering is most greatly diminished, is “hakhel”—also an “ingathering,” if you think about it, but one of a very different sort. Assif, after all, represents the accumulation of material wealth. Hakhel, by contrast, represents our congregating around spiritual wealth. And though the year of shemittah leaves us with less material wealth to collect, less assif to undertake, we would be remiss for thinking that this is because the year was an unproductive one. It was, in fact, a most productive one—only that, if we wish to take an inventory of what we have amassed over its course, the place to look is not in the grain house. The sum total of this year’s produce—all the Torah learned, all the mitzvos accomplished, while the nation took its sabbatical from its regular economic routine—lies, instead, in the hearts and minds of its people. The real repository of this year’s produce is the Jewish people themselves. We may not be able to consume this “produce” the way we would a loaf of bread—but we can internalize it, can make it a part of us, all the same. And if we wish to take stock of it, all we need to do is engage in hakhel; all we need to do is call together the nation and behold the fruits of our labor in the form of the God-centered community which we have built collectively during the year that passed. This is the great insight communicated by the Torah’s deliberate dichotomy of assif and hakhel.

Nor does that dichotomy necessarily exhaust itself here. Actually, the case might be made that this same dichotomy runs through the megillah which we read on Sukkot—“Ecclesiastes.” The bulk of this megillah focuses upon the futility of chasing after material wealth, pursuing creature comforts, and even acquiring worldly knowledge, if that knowledge is regarded as an end unto itself. In several key places throughout this megillah we find its author, Shlomo ha-Melech, employing the language of assaf/hosif to describe precisely this form of acquisition (for the relationship between these roots, see Gen. 30:23-24). Thus: “I accumulated for myself also silver and gold, and the treasures of the kings and the provinces; I acquired for myself various types of musical instruments, the delight of the sons of men, wagons and coaches. I grew, and I increased [הוספתי] more than all who were before me in Jerusalem…” (Ecc. 2:7-8); “To a man who is good in His sight, He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner He has given an occupation to gather [לאסף] and to accumulate” (ibid. 2:26); “I increased  [הוספתי] intelligence, more than had ever been before me in Jerusalem” (ibid. 1:15);  “He who increases [יוסיף]  knowledge, increases [יוסיף] grief” (ibid. 1:18). In like manner does this theme continue, for almost twelve full chapters, until it finally reaches the following climax:

Kohelet [קהלת] sought to find the right words, and properly recorded words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings [אספות] like firmly embedded nails, given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. The last [סוף] word, now that everything has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the entirety of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecc. 12:10-14).

Ultimately, concludes Shlomo ha-Melech, spending our lives in the mode of endless and aimless “acquisition” will yield neither happiness nor fulfillment. Sof [סוף] davar—after all has been “collected,” all has been gathered, all has been weighed and measured—it emerges that meaningful life is, in fact, the one aimed at attainments of the spirit. And the name which Shlomo ha-Melech takes for himself as he imparts this lesson—and the title he gives to the megillah penned for that purpose—is, most appropriately: Kohelet.

Shlomo ha-Melech, who surely presided over many a hakhel during his lengthy reign; Shlomo ha-Melech, who, as the builder of the beit ha-mikdash, may even have hosted the first-ever hakhel performed to all the requisite specifications—this same Shlomo ha-Melech, as he sat down to set down the sum total of his life’s wisdom, elected to do so by invoking the language of “hakhel.” As someone who had achieved unparalleled levels of personal fame and fortune, Shlomo ha-Melech—that is, Kohelet—recognized better than anyone that the goods of assif represent blessings in their own right, worthy of our appreciation, and of course, of our gratitude. Nevertheless, he insisted, the measure by which each of us is ultimately evaluated is the degree to which we have contributed towards building a community centered upon the credo of hakhel: of serving Hashem, studying His word, and emulating His ways in our conduct with His creatures.

As we gather to celebrate our “ingatherings” over Sukkot, and during the year ahead, we would be wise to take this wisdom to heart.

Chag Sameach!


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