By Laura Seymour
We often forget that the Israelites were/are an agricultural people and that so many of our holidays reflect the land and care for the earth. Simply stated, the Torah is the first ecological book on how to take care of the world! The craziness of the Jewish calendar exists because we must keep our holidays in seasons that are related to planting and harvesting. Each of the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage holidays have an important connection to the land. Passover is when we begin planting; Shavuot is first fruits; and Sukkot is the harvest time. And then we began praying for rain in order for the land to be ready to start the cycle again.
The Torah is filled with guidelines for caring for the earth and one of the most important is the shmita year. The first reference to Shmita is in the Book of Exodus 23:10-11):
“For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and to let it be, that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive grove.” In ancient Israel, all farmers and workers left the fields and went to the study houses for a full year and they focused on their spiritual needs. (before you ask, yes, this in observed today in Israel). When you think about it, this makes so much sense! This year has been a shmita year which goes from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah and now farms in Israel go back to work and we start the counting of another seven years before the next rest.
Sukkot, as a pilgrimage holiday, was a time for all to gather at the Temple in Jerusalem. At the end of the shmita year a ceremony called “Hakhel” — assemble or gather — took place for ALL to gather to hear the Torah read. It was the only event that required the attendance of every Jewish man, woman and child reminding everyone of the moment at Mount Sinai when all stood to receive the Torah. As you can imagine, there is a lot of debate from the many rabbis over how much of the Torah is to be read. It seems that the decision was that only certain selections of Deuteronomy were to be read (1:1-6:3; 6:4-9; 11:13-21; 14:22-29; 26:12-15; 17:14-20; 28).
If you look at the verses, notice especially that 6:4-9 is the Shema — LISTEN! We are to gather and listen to the Torah being read. There is something about the communal experience which is a moment for all the senses to be attuned and then together to listen to the words! What an incredible moment!
Now the Biblical mitzvah of Hakhel is only in effect when all the Jewish people reside in Israel which will happen when the Messiah comes. However, we can take the ceremony of Hakhel for inspirational unity gatherings of all types both big a small. This is a perfect time to begin (or continue) the process of Torah study. It is suggested that each Hakhel gathering that you create, whether big or small, have three items: words of Torah, a prayer or blessing and tzedakah.
To be honest/transparent, this is the first time I have ever learned about this ceremony and if it is new to you, fantastic! Go online, check it out, Google it and then make a plan to do something to take part in your own ceremony. Simchat Torah is the celebration of the first and last parshiot to be read. We never stop reading — this is the perfect time to start anew!
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center