We are at the end of a hakhel year. The seventh year of the cycle is shemitah—the sabbatical, when the land is left fallow, and everything that grows belongs to everyone equally. The following year is hakhel; all farms, vineyards, olive groves, etc., are back in business.
Hakhel means to gather. In the days of the Temple, the nation gathered in the Temple at the beginning of the hakhel year, shortly before they returned to work, and the king read to them from the book of Deuteronomy. This book is filled with ethics and exhortations. It is Moses’ last sermon to the Jewish people. He inspires, encourages, cajoles, reprimands, instructs, and commands. The king read this book to the nation to remind them to think of G-d as they returned to work.
People had been off of work for twelve months. They had much free time on their hands, and they surely used it to study the Torah. During this time, they would have grown spiritually closer to G-d.
This is especially true considering that they had no secure income during this time. They had to rely on G-d to sustain them because their cupboards grew progressively emptier as the year progressed. The daily struggle to remain upbeat required much trust in G-d. They had to train themselves to think positively and place their trust in G-d.
This might have been a challenging year from a financial perspective, but it was a phenomenal year from a spiritual perspective. And it was now drawing to a close. They were now returning to work, and they were at risk of losing their hard-earned gains. They would not have as much time to study, their minds would be preoccupied with work, and they would think less of G-d.
Their income would also begin to stream again, which would make them self-sufficient, and they could easily forget their trust in G-d.
This is one of the reasons the king would read to the nation from the inspiring book of Deuteronomy. It was an uplifting moment; the entire nation gathered, men, women, and children. It was reminiscent in some ways of the Sinaic event when Jews gathered, and G-d spoke the Ten Commandments. They heard the words of the Torah, and they trembled in awe as they did at Sinai.
This was their grand send-off to the new year and the new regime. They would return to work, but they would preserve their reliance on G-d, awareness of G-d, and deeper relationship with G-d. They would not study Torah as often in the next six years, nor would they pray as much. They would not have as much time as they did during the sabbatical. But they would remain connected.
There were many ways in which the Sabbatical experience lingered with our ancestors in the following years. One of them was an increase in empathy.
When a person asks for a donation, most of us are inclined to give. We give because we care and because we were raised with a charitable ethic. However, as much as we care, we cannot possibly know the suffering of the person who is poor.
If we never had to worry about tomorrow’s dinner, we can’t possibly know what that is like, If we never had to default on our mortgage, we can’t possibly know how it feels to ask a friend to let us sleep on their couch. How can we know the desperation of a mother who doesn’t know where to put her daughters to sleep? How can we know the anxiety of a father who can’t keep his children clothed, dry, warm, and fed?
We are generous, but not as much as we would be if we knew what they were really going through. If we had been experienced it ourselves, we would feel their poverty viscerally and would give much more. We would open not only our wallets but also our hearts and homes.
This was one of the benefits of the sabbatical. Very few people were wealthy enough to suspend their income for twelve months without worrying about making their payments. In the seventh sabbatical cycle, the sabbatical abutted the jubilee year. This meant that people were out of income for two years. I don’t know about you, but I could not keep going for that long without an income stream.
Most people survived those two years by miracles. G-d came through for them as He has promised He would. Somehow, food was found. They went to the neighbor’s grove and found a few olives. They tried their relative’s orchard and found a few dates. Each day, food fell as if from heaven, but they worried each day about feeding their children and keeping a roof over their heads.
When they returned to work, they were relieved. They could finally breathe easy. So, if a poor person knocked on the door and asked for help, the response was genuine—very different than it had been before those two grueling years. At this point, they knew exactly what that person was going through. They knew exactly how embarrassing it was to knock on the door for a handout. They would not be satisfied with giving a socially acceptable amount and closing the door. They would invite them in, serve a hot meal, open their hearts, and offer empathy.
Moreover, it would have been easier to share their food and money after a sabbatical because they knew it was not really theirs. If the ownership of their ancestral farm could be suspended for two years, the farm was not really theirs. The experience taught them that what was theirs truly belonged to G-d. And G-d wanted them to share.
This was one of the key goals of the hakhel Torah reading. One of the primary passages in the book of Deuteronomy is the importance of charity. The Torah tells us not to clench our hearts nor close our hands because the poor person is our brother. They are our equal. Fortune is a wheel. It can smile on us today and on someone else tomorrow. What is mine won’t always be mine; tomorrow, the wheel can turn.
By reading these passages, the king encouraged the people to remember the experience of the past two years. Go home to your homesteads and farms, but don’t forget what it was like to be poor. When someone knocks on your door, respond with empathy and kindness.
Year of Hakhel
This year was a year of hakhel. Throughout the year, Jews around the world made a point of gathering in friendship to enjoy fellowship and study the Torah. This Shabbat is the final Shabbat of this hakhel year. On this Shabbat, we will read about the king’s Torah reading during the hakhel year. On this hakhel Shabbat, let’s gather with others in genuine unity and friendship. Let’s resolve to be kinder and gentler. To respond with open hearts when we learn of a need. To offer sustenance with dignity. And most importantly, to empathize.
In return, may G-d smile upon us in the coming year and treat us even better than we treat others. May He grant us a sweet new year filled with blessing, health, success, and prosperity. Amen.