Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sukkot 5776 Gatherings

  Echoes of Eden
  Rabbi Ari Kahn
Sukkot 5776
(Hakahel and Chag Haasif)

Toward the end of the Torah, a rare commandment is presented; it is called Hak’hel, and refers to a mass gathering of the entire nation:
Moshe then gave them the following commandment: At the end of every seven years, on the occasion of the Shmitah, on the festival of Sukkot, …' you must read this Torah before all Israel, so that they will be able to hear it. You must gather together the people, the men, women, children and proselytes from your settlements, and let them hear it. They will thus learn to be in awe of the Almighty your God, carefully keeping all the words of this Torah.  (Devarim 31:10-12)
Every seven years, a public gathering is to be held, a mass rally with the Torah at its center. At this event the Torah is to be read aloud so that all the people can hear, learn, and be inspired by the word of God. The image is exciting, energizing; what a wonderful mitzvah this must have been!
And yet, the timing specified in Moshe’s instructions is intriguing: Why is this mitzvah fulfilled only once every seven years? Why at the end of the Shmitah year? Why specifically on the holiday of Sukkot?
On the one hand we may posit that during the Shmitah year, when all farming was suspended, the vast majority of society became full-time “yeshiva students”. During their “sabbatical” from the arduous tasks and inflexible schedule of agricultural life, farmers were finally able to devote the time and energy to Torah study that they sorely lacked during the other six years of the cycle.[1] At the culmination of a year of study, the Hak’hel “rally” is a fitting final chord, a sort of closing ceremony for the year’s spiritual and intellectual endeavors.
While this may explain the timing of Hak’hel at the end of the Shmitah year, it does not explain the connection with the Sukkot festival. Although Sukkot is one of the three yearly festivals on which pilgrimage to Jerusalem is required, it is, in and of itself, a holiday replete with ceremony. Why add this additional mitzvah to an already-laden festival?
The Jewish holidays reflect the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel, as well as the historical and theological foundations of Judaism. In fact, the festival we know as Sukkot is first introduced in the Torah[2] by its agricultural name, The Festival of the Harvest, without mention of its historical/theological significance. Interestingly, The Festival of the Harvest is presented in the context of the laws of Shmitah:
You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat [from your fields] just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove. (Shmot 23:11)… Keep the Festival of Matzahs. Eat matzahs for seven days, as I commanded you, during the prescribed time in the spring, since this is when you left Egypt. (Shmot 23:15) [Also keep] the Reaping Festival of the first fruits of your produce that you planted in the field. [There is also] the Harvest Festival at the end of the year, when you gather your produce from the field. (Shmot 23:16)
The historical/theological character of The Festival of Sukkot celebrates some very particular aspects of the Exodus[3]: When the Israelites left Egypt, they lived in the wilderness for forty years, protected and sustained by God. The huts we erect on Sukkot commemorate this spiritual and physical dependence on God, the temporary abodes of the desert and the Clouds of Glory with which God shielded us from harm.[4] As such, this festival could just as easily have been celebrated at any time of the year. On the other hand, the agricultural character of the holiday places it firmly at the end of the agricultural cycle, when the harvest is gathered from the fields.[5] This is the aspect of the festival referred to as Hag HaAsif, the holiday of gathering.
With this latter aspect of the festival in mind, the selection of Sukkot in the year immediately following Shmitah as the holiday most appropriate for observing Hak’hel becomes far more intriguing. During the Shmitah year, nothing is planted, and anything that grows on its own is made ownerless[6]:
God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God's sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your un-pruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall [also] be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land. (Vayikra 25:1-7)
What sort of harvest festival can we possibly observe if there is nothing left in the fields to gather? How can we celebrate by gathering up our produce if all the produce has been declared ownerless? What can the farmer bring to the Beit HaMikdash if he did not work the fields all year, and anything that might have grown has been consumed by any and all takers? Surely, the scheduling of Hak’hel at the end of the sabbatical year is quite precise,[7] and is intended to address these very issues. Rather than rejoicing, together with his family, with the produce he gathers from his fields, the farmer has shared his produce with one and all throughout the seventh year. Now, instead of gathering the bounty of the fields, the people are gathered together. Rather than rejoicing with the physical fruits of the year’s labor, the festival will celebrate the fruits of the year’s spiritual and intellectual labor.
By observing Hak’hel at the end of the Shmitah year, specifically on Sukkot, we celebrate a different kind of Harvest Festival: On this very rare opportunity, we are able to more readily identify the agricultural aspects of Sukkot, the aspects encapsulated in the name Hag HaAsif, precisely because the harvest it celebrates is not agricultural. At the end of the Shmitah year, Hak’hel enables us to make a “siyum” as it were, for a year of study and spiritual growth. The opportunity presented by Hak’hel allows us to draw inspiration from the passing Shmitah year, to allow the kinship and mutual responsibility that lie at the heart of the laws of Shmitah to inspire us all for the next six years, and to allow the Torah that we learned during the sabbatical year to take root in our hearts.[8]

[1] See Hizkuni Dvarim 31:10, Hadar Z’kanim Dvarim 31:10, Ibn Ezra Dvarim 31:10, Ibn Ezra Shmot 20:8
[2] Shmot 23:16.
[3] Vayikra 23:43.
[4] Talmud Bavli Sukka 11b.
[5] See Ibn Ezra, Shmot 23:16; HaKtav v’haKabalah, Shmot 23:16.
[6] Shmot 23:11 “But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat [from your fields] just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.

[7] See comments of R Hayim Palitiel to Shmot 23:16
[8] See comments of R SR Hirsch, and Meshech Hochma to Dvarim 31:10.

Echoes of Eden

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