How long do you think it would take to read the whole Torah, out loud, from start to finish? And why would we do such a thing even if timing wasn’t overwhelming?
Once every seven years, the Torah teaches, we are supposed to gather the entire Jewish community to read the entire Torah out loud. It takes about 13 hours by the way.
What is the purpose of this ritual? First, I think the primary intent of this mitzvah is simply to gather. To see that the Jewish world is large and diverse – not all Jews look like us or live in our same circumstances – this becomes obvious when we gather.
There are Jews in China and Africa and India and basically every corner of the world. In suburban North America, it’s easy to think that all Jews live with relative ease and safety. Gathering every seven years helps us zoom out and see the breadth of our Jewish world.
And secondarily, gathering specifically to read the Torah also conveys an important message. Despite our varied homelands, languages, cultures and even different Jewish traditions, the Torah is our shared sacred text. We come from a common history and we share common values. And we also have a common purpose – to fulfill mitzvot which improve our personal lives and communities, and by extension the world.
So this new Hebrew year, 5783, is the once in seven years observance of the Hakhel. It was commemorated in the Orthodox world but also in the liberal world. An organization called Judaism Unbound orchestrated an online reading of the entire Torah over one day. Various teachers and rabbis read the Torah in the presence of a community gathered from all around the world. Thank you Zoom for connecting us in ways we never imagined!
Hakhel also relates to the seven year agricultural cycle commanded in the Torah. For six years we plant and sow the land and in the seventh year, the land gets a Shabbat, a year of rest. And at the end of the seventh year, Hakhel arrives. After the whole cycle, we don’t just start over again. We pause for this holiday of gathering and Torah study.
To me, this is the most significant aspect of Hakhel. We pause. We gather. And we reconnect with our source, the Torah. There is something very simple and very profound about the Hakhel. It doesn’t take much …. No sukkah to build, no long fast to muster through, it’s simply about being together and returning to the Torah.
Judaism’s great innovation, to me, is that time is holy. Moments shouldn’t pass without attention and appreciation. Hakhel is about the moment – the transition from one set of seven years to the next set of seven years.
It doesn’t matter exactly what we do … it mostly matters that we notice that time has passed. It’s a time of transition and recalibration. Like a global Rosh Hashanah – we pause and see where we’ve been and where we want to go. And at the same time, we celebrate the exact moment we’re in – a new year, a new cycle of years.
As we move further into this new year, I hope we can find moments to pause and refocus our most core values – the people closest to us and our shared heritage, the Torah.
Rabbi Amy Rader