Parashat Vayelech; Shabbat Shuvah
September 11, 2021, 5 Tishrei 5782
Torah: Deuteronomy 31:1-30; Triennial 31:1-30
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:17
No Child Left Behind
Parashat Vayelech describes the commandment to read from the Torah publicly on Sukkot of the sabbatical year, when all the Israelites would gather in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival. This mitzvah, known as Hakhel, was meant to include every member of the community, as the Torah emphasizes: “Gather [hakhel] the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your gates—that they may hear and learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah. Their children, too, who do not know, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God” (31:12-13). Although the past century has witnessed modern attempts to revive the Hakhel gathering, perhaps the best contemporary analogue for this mitzvah is the weekly reading from the Torah in synagogue on Shabbat. The Talmud’s discussion of Hakhel sheds light on why it is so important to bring children to shul, and how children—and indeed all of us—get far more out of shul than we are sometimes aware.
The mitzvah of Hakhel appears in tractate Sotah (41a) in the context of the rabbinic discussion of which commandments must be performed in Hebrew, and which may be performed in any language. The rabbis teach that the king must read from the Torah in Hebrew at the Hakhel gathering, even if not everyone would understand. This seems surprising, given that the purpose of this mitzvah, as stated in the Torah, is for everyone to “hear and learn to revere the Lord” (31:12). How is everyone supposed to hear and learn if they can’t even understand the words? Perhaps one answer is to be found in the majestic, ceremonious nature of the event, which would inspire reverence even in those who could not understand exactly what was going on. The Torah was read aloud by the king, who sat atop a special wooden platform in the Temple courtyard prepared especially for the occasion. Everyone watched as a Torah scroll was passed from one communal leader to another, ending with the high priest, who then handed it to the king, who stood to receive it. The king would then sit and read aloud several passages from the book of Deuteronomy, including the Shema, the mitzvah of tithing, the laws of appointing a king, and the blessings and curses. The ritual was dignified, scripted, and elaborately choreographed, and the rarity of the event—which did not take place every year, but rather every seven years—further underscored its momentousness. Whether it was at ages 3 and 10, or 4 and 11, or 5 and 12, a child was unlikely to forget his or her first Hakhel ceremonies.
The Talmud offers its own answer to the question of why it was so important for the Torah to specify that everyone—men, women, and children—attend the Hakhel ceremony. The rabbis (Hagigah 3a) draw on the Torah’s description of the purpose of the event as “that they may listen and so learn to revere the Lord.” They explain that the men come to learn and the women come to listen. What about the children, the Talmud asks? Lacking any additional verb in the biblical verse, the rabbis resolve that the children must come “so as to bring merit to those who bring them.” The implication of the Talmud’s explanation is that there is value in everyone’s attendance even though women cannot learn and children cannot listen. And yet for all its inclusivity, this is a highly problematic notion. What are we to make of a tradition that teaches that women cannot learn and children cannot listen?
We can begin to arrive at an answer to this question by considering the Talmud’s discussion of the place of the deaf and the mute at the Hakhel ceremony. At first the rabbis rule that both are exempt, given the Torah’s stipulation that the purpose of hearing the Torah read communally is so that all in attendance “may listen and so learn.” As the rabbis explain, the deaf are exempt because they cannot listen, and the mute are exempt because they cannot learn. But then the rabbis question these assumptions. Is it really true that a person who cannot speak also cannot learn? The rabbis relay a story about two mute people who lived in the neighborhood of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Hagigah 3a). Like the two mutes in the opening chapter of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, they did everything together, and although no one else understood them or knew what they were thinking, they had each other. The Talmud relates that whenever Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would enter the study hall to teach, they would sit before him and nod their heads and move their lips, even though they were incapable of saying a word. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi prayed to God to heal them, and God had mercy on them and they gained powers of speech. The story concludes with a climactic flourish: “And it was discovered that they had learned Halakhah, Sifra, Sifrei and the entire Talmud!” It seems that the mutes were learning all the while, and they had gained a staggering proficiency and mastery of all the texts they had listened to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi teach.
As this story reminds us, people can often comprehend a lot more than we might think, and we should never write anyone off as incapable of learning. For centuries it was believed that women were not capable or suited to study the texts of our tradition; that assumption has of course been discredited in most of the Jewish world, where women’s insights and contributions have deepened and revolutionized so many fields of Jewish scholarship. Children, too, are capable of internalizing much more than we may think. Even if they do not understand the words that are being chanted from the Torah—even if they are just eating snacks in a stroller or running around with their friends in back—they are being exposed to the rhythms of the Torah’s verses, and to the awe and reverence with which the Torah scroll is held and kissed in a synagogue setting. It is likely that one day, when these children are older, they will surprise us with what they managed to absorb.
Every year when the high holidays roll around, I ask myself whether it’s worth taking the kids with us to shul. Perhaps it would make more sense for my husband and me to leave them home and take turns going to shul, so that we can both have the opportunity to concentrate on our prayers. But then I think back to our Shabbat mornings in lockdown, when our kids reenacted the Torah service and gave each member of the family an Aliyah. They learned to do that by coming to shul each week, when we had no idea they were paying any attention. And so instead, we daven alone in the evenings—when our kids are asleep and we can focus on what we are praying for—and bring the kids to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings, as we do every Shabbat.
I’ve come to appreciate that when children sit in shul and hear words of Torah chanted again and again, these words become part of the fabric of their being even before their conscious mind has processed them. The same is true for all of us. At the end of the parashah, God refers to Torah as a song, instructing Moshe to “write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths” (31:19). Sometimes we will hear a song again and again before we begin to properly parse the words, and yet songs have a way of burrowing themselves into our minds (and souls) even before we fully understand them. I think of one of my favorite childhood fictional heroines, Ramona Quimby, who spent her first few weeks of kindergarten thinking that a “dawnzer” was a “lamp that gives lee light” because she had not properly parsed the words of The Star-Spangled Banner, which she was required to sing each morning: “O say can you see by the dawnzer’s lee light.” Ramona made her own meaning out of the anthem. When we and our children come to synagogue week after week, the lyrics of the Torah’s song seep into our unconscious mind. Even when we are not listening carefully or cannot fully understand the words, we are living our lives against the backdrop of its music.
Torah Sparks is courtesy of