Sukkot and Hakhel: The Election Antidote
BY RABBI SHALOM HAMMER
When we sit together with friends and family in our sukkah, it is worth reflecting on its fascinating uniqueness. It is a merging of opposites, a physical structure that is suffused with spirituality. On the one hand, we leave the comforts of our permanent home and dwell in a temporary, less comfortable dwelling for seven days – a reminder that our physical existence is temporary and that only our spiritual values and accomplishments are eternal. Yet it is the physical structure of the sukkah which unifies us as we huddle together within the small confines of its walls, recalling the way our forefathers were surrounded and protected by the Clouds of Glory for forty years in the wilderness.
A kosher sukkah requires two components: the schach (thatched roof) and walls. Rav Yaakov Ariel explains that the schach above us represents the spiritual realm of the heavens, protecting us from natural elements such as rain and sun, whereas the walls of the sukkah represent the physical realm of mankind, protecting us from threats here on earth, as a fortress surrounds and protects its soldiers or inhabitants. Together, the walls and schach bind the physical realm of man with the spiritual realm of Hashem. Interestingly, the majority of the laws of the sukkah concern the walls, implying that our focus must be on sanctifying our world below in order to build a partnership with Hashem above.
The merging of opposites represented by the sukkah is also expressed through one of the holiday’s most important themes: achdut, solidarity. Whereas the schach and walls represent the merging of heaven and earth, achdut is the unity and merging of people.
Every seven years, upon the conclusion of the Shemitta year, the Jewish people perform the mitzvah of hakhel during the holiday of Sukkot. Hakhel is derived from the word kahal, congregation, for at this event all of Am Yisrael would gather together as one in Jerusalem to hear words of the Torah. “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones… that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the L-rd your G-d, and observe to do all the words of this law” (Devarim 31:12).
The Gemara explains that the reason small children were brought to participate in this mitzvah, even though they are not obligated in the mitzvot, is “to give reward to those who bring them”. But I believe there is another important reason for bringing the children. While children might not be obligated in mitzvot, they are highly impressionable. By witnessing the massive gathering of hakhel, they learn to appreciate not only the event itself, but also what it means to be part of a great nation.
In a similar vein, every year we stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, reenacting Am Yisrael’s acceptance of the Torah at Sinai as one unified people. Although the event at Sinai took place long ago, the unity of our nation is eternally fundamental to our mission and our identity. This message, perhaps more than any other, is the essential teaching of Sukkot.
Just a few days after Sukkot, the people of Israel will once again vote for a new government. Elections typically invite divisiveness and often antagonism. This Sukkot, as we celebrate the mitzvah of hakhel, let us impress upon ourselves and those around us the significance of achdut and coalition, of working together to strengthen our holy nation, physically and spiritually, in the years ahead.
Rabbi Shalom Hammer is a lecturer for the IDF as well as the founder and director of Makom Meshutaf which offers non-coercive Jewish educational programming for Pre-Military Academies, under the auspices of World Mizrachi. Rabbi Hammer champions suicide prevention and has authored ten books. Learn more at www.rabbihammer.com.