Even Babies!

The parsha Vayeilech contains within it the two last commandments of the Torah, numbers 612 and 613. Commandment 612 is about the Hakhel observance during the Festival of Sukkos of the post-Sabbatical year. [Mitzvah number 613 is about writing a Torah scroll.]

The Mitzvah of Hakhel is described in the Torah thus:

Moses commanded them saying, “At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Sukkos, [after] the year of release.

When all Israel comes to appear before G‑d, your G‑d, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all of Israel, in their ears.

Assemble the people: the men, women, and the children, and the convert in your cities, in order that they will hear, and in order that they will learn and fear G‑d your G‑d, and be careful to observe all the words of this Torah.

This year, Mitzvah 612 assumes a particular importance because the New Year we are entering, 5776, is a post-Sabbatical year and in the days of old, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the king would read selections of the Torah to the entire Jewish nation, men, women and children. Indeed, the Torah uses the word taf, which actually includes little children!

Why Bring Toddlers?

The Talmud asks why they brought the little children.

The Talmud answers that it was “to give reward to those who bring them.” While the children, particularly, little children, were incapable of learning or even listening to the words of the Torah read by the king, the Torah wanted to reward the parents for bringing them.

R. Chaim Vital, the primary disciple of the great Kabbalist known as the Arizal, offers an inspiring explanation in the name of his master as to why the Torah requested that parents bring their children.

Normally, when both parents go on a trip, they have no other choice than to take their children with them, especially little children. It stands to reason that when the Torah required both men and women to attend the Hakhel observance, it was assumed that they would bring their children along with them. Why then did they need to be commanded to bring the children? A Mitzvah, by definition, is a commandment. If we would perform that act anyhow without being told, there is no need to command us. The Torah does not command us to breathe, eat or drink. Why then command us to bring our children?

Parenthetically, one of the explanations why women are exempted from the first Mitzvah of the Torah, which is to procreate, is that she does need to be commanded to have children. It is the most natural thing for a woman to want children. They do not need the Mitzvah.

Similarly, there is no need to tell parents to bring their children to the Hakhel celebration because it would be odd for them not to. And yet, the Torah does exactly that; it commands them to bring their children! Why?

The answer is that G‑d wants us to take an ordinary quotidian act and turn it into a Mitzvah, a Divine experience.

Mitzvos: The More the Merrier or Meri[tori]er.

This concept can be said to be rooted in the words of the Mishnah:

Rabbi Chananyah ben Akashya says: “G‑d wanted to provide the Jewish people with merit so he increased for them the Torah and its commandments, as it says, “G‑d wanted for the sake of His righteousness, so he made the Torah greater and more beautiful.”

Taken at face value, Rabbi Chananyah is referring to the 613 commandments. Each Mitzvah endows us with more avenues to acquire merits. The more Mitzvos we have, the better off we are.

The simple and obvious message is that we should not think of a Mitzvah as an onerous burden; rather, it is an incredible opportunity to find one more exquisite piece of treasure.

Moreover, the word for merit in Hebrew, zechus, has also been rendered by the Maggid of Mezeritch (the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov as leader of the Chassidic movement) as refinement. The more Mitzvos we have the more we become refined.

However, in light of the Arizal’s explanation for the Torah commanding the parents to bring their children, we can discover a deeper understanding of Rabbi Chananyah’s words. If Rabbi Chananyah was extolling the virtue of every Mitzvah, they are far greater than just the source of merit and refinement. There is a far more fundamental reason for each and every Mitzvah. Each Mitzvah binds us to G‑d. Indeed, the very word itself means both commandment and bond. The benefits of “merit” and “refinement” pale in comparison to the idea that we finite beings can connect to the infinite G‑d. There is nothing more sublime than that.

Rabbi Chananyah, when discussing the merits we accumulate and how we become refined, therefore, was addressing those ordinary acts which the Torah regards as a Mitzvah even though we would have done them regardless of the commandment.

A timely example: Why is building a Sukkah regarded as a Mitzvah? Once we know that G‑d wants us to dwell in a Sukkah during the Festival of Sukkos, isn’t it obvious that we have to build one? Why the need for an express command for us to do something that we would have done anyhow? This is essentially the same question we asked regarding the need for a Mitzvah to bring little children.

The answer provided by the 19th century commentary Hemek Shailoh is reminiscent of the Arizals explanation concerning the Mitzvah to bring children to the Hakhel celebration. True, Hemek Shailoh states, we don’t need a Mitzvah to want to build a sukkah, but nevertheless the Torah wanted us to accumulate more merit so it increased the number of Mitzvos to include even those actions that we would have performed without the express command. Otherwise inconsequential acts, actions we would have done anyhow, are thus elevated to the full-fledged status of Mitzvos with all of their attendant benefits.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Any Mitzvah

Reading this message on the Shabbos before Yom Kippur suggests that there is a special message before the Day of Atonement.

As we come before G‑d on this final Day of Judgment, seeking to arm ourselves with as many Mitzvos as possible, it behooves us to add these “auxiliary” Mitzvos to our repertoire. These Mitzvos add to our merit and help us tip the scales of judgment in our favor.

No time to Sin

There is an interesting Midrash concerning the period between Yom Kippur and Sukkos about building the Sukkah,. When the Torah introduces the Festival of Sukkos, it refers to it as the “first Day,” rather than “the fifteenth day of the month.” The Midrash takes note of this and explains that the first day of Sukkos is the “first day of accounting for sins.” The Midrash explains that after Yom Kippur our sins are forgiven but we do not start a new slate until the first day of the Festival of Sukkos because in the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos we are so preoccupied with Mitzvos (such as building a Sukkah and procuring the Lulav, etc.), we have neither time nor inclination to sin.

Chassidic commentators have noted that the Sukkos Holiday is laden with Mitzvos, chief among them sitting in the Sukkah, the blessing and waving of the Four Kinds, numerous prayers and Torah readings. Yet it is the four day period of preparation that is credited with keeping us away from sin.

In a certain sense, the preparation for a Mitzvah is actually more spiritually potent than the Mitzvah itself. The preparations, which did not need a direct command, are elevated to the level of a Mitzvah and possess an even greater capacity to provide us with merit and refinement. And it is the power of refinement that keeps us from sinning.

The Talmud states that reward for our observance of most Mitzvos comes in the next world. However, many commentators point out that we reap the reward for the preparations we make for the Mitzvah, in this world.

One explanation for the distinction between our actions and the timing of the reward is that there is no greater force for refinement than the hard work of getting ready for the Mitzvah. Once a person is refined, she or he reaps other physical benefits as well.

In the Preparation Mode

We are now situated in the eve before the ultimate Holiday of Redemption. On the one hand, the ideal time for observing the Mitzvos will be in the future Messianic Era, when we will have the Bais Hamikdash rebuilt and life’s conditions will facilitate the uncompromised and unadulterated observance of all the commandments. We refer to this in our Shabbos prayers when we ask G‑d to rebuild the Temple so that we can follow the “commandments with love, in accordance with Your will.”

The Mitzvos we perform now have been described by Rashi as a preparation for the ultimate observance in the future. Lest one think that the Mitzvos we do now are inconsequential, we are reminded that, on the contrary, they have the enhanced power of refinement that brings the Redemption in its wake. The Mitzvos we do now that seem to be of secondary value were elevated by G‑d to the highest order. These Mitzvos will enable us to break through all the barriers and lead us to the ultimate Hakhel, when all Jews will be united in hearing the King Moshiach read the Torah.

A G’mar Chasimah Tova! May you all be sealed for a good and sweet year!