Nitzavim-Vayelech: Educational experiences

The Torah portion we will hear this Shabbat includes a unique commandment – the mitzva of “Hakhel” – “Assembly.”

Hanging torah scrolls (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hanging torah scrolls
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Torah portion we will hear this Shabbat includes a unique commandment – the mitzva of “Hakhel” – “Assembly.”
When the Temple stood, all of Am Yisrael would gather at the Temple Mount once in seven years and listen as several basic sections of the Torah were read.
The Torah clarifies and emphasizes that not only the adults of the nation are to participate in this event, but rather the entire nation – men, women and children: “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones... that they may hear, and that they may learn... and observe to do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 31, 12) Why does the Torah command parents to bring young children to this special event? The Talmud tells a story from the time of the Tana’im that is relevant to this: “Our rabbis taught: Once R. Johanan b. Beroka and R.
Eleazar Hisma went to pay their respects to R. Joshua at Peki’in. Said he to them: What new teaching was there at the college today? They replied: We are your disciples and your waters do we drink. Said he to them: Even so, it is impossible for a college session to pass without some novel teaching. Whose Sabbath was it? “It was the Sabbath of R. Eleazar b. Azariah, [they replied]. And what was the theme of his Haggadic discourse today? They answered: The section ‘Assemble.’ And what exposition did he give thereon? ‘Assemble the people the men and the women and the little ones.’ If the men came to learn, the women came to hear, but wherefore have the little ones to come? In order to grant reward to those that bring them. Said he to them: There was a fair jewel in your hand, and you sought to deprive me of it?!” (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Chagiga, daf gimmel, amud alef) Ostensibly, the answer of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya is obscure. His question was based on the assumption that the young children were not capable of understanding what was said during the Hakhel event. If so, why would the parents be rewarded for bringing their children to an event which has no meaning for them? Apparently the reward that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya is referring to is not a reward that parents will get in the future, in Olam Haba, the afterlife – after their deaths, but is referring to the reward that the parents will get here – in this world. The reward of nachat, satisfaction, from their children.
In answer to the question of what is the point of bringing children to the Hakhel event, Rabbi Elazar answers that, indeed, the children are not able to understand the exact meaning of what is said at the event, but the assembly of the entire nation at the Temple to hear words of the Torah will be etched in the children’s hearts despite their young age.
The positive result of this impression is what the parents will receive as a reward for the effort and investment in the education of their children from a young age.
Educating children is the greatest task of every parent. This task demands that the parent “enter” the heart of the child, understand what makes him happy or sad, what “speaks” to him and what excites him.
Only a parent who can fathom what reality looks like in the eyes of his young child can succeed in passing on his heritage to the next generation. Only a parent who comprehends the power of positive experiences can infuse his children with desirable messages.
And this task begins from the moment each of us becomes a parent! It is told that an important rabbi was asked by a student, the father of a small child, from what age was he required to begin educating his son.
The rabbi asked him: How old is your son?
The student replied: Two years old.
The rabbi said: If so, then you are already two years late in educating him...
Though the commandment of Hakhel is not customary in our day, when to our great sorrow, the Temple does not exist, the hidden message in this mitzva can still be internalized and implemented. And with Hashem’s help, we will see the great reward given to those who invest in their children’s education!
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.