Vayelekh | "That They Should Learn to Fear God All Their Days"
Please include in your tefillot:
Tzvi ben Penina Feldman - Kidnapped 11/06/82
Yekutiel Yehuda Nachman ben Sarah Katz - Kidnapped 11/06/82
Ron (Roon) ben Batya Arad - Kidnapped 16/10/86
Guy ben Rina Chever - Missing In Action since 17/08/97
Gilad ben Aviva Shalit - Kidnapped 25/06/06
Adapted by Rav Dov Karoll
This week's parasha speaks of the mitzva of hakhel, which takes place in a special place, the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple), at a special time, during the Sukkot holiday following the Shemitta year. Some people think that all places and times are equivalent. This is not only true among secular people; some religious people think that because of ideas such as "God's glory fills the earth," that all places, and, correspondingly, all times, are equivalent in terms of sanctity and significance. Our worldview is totally opposed to this: we have special times in the week and year, and places with different levels of sanctity.
The verse states that hakhel is meant to accomplish the following: "That the people shall hear, and they shall learn to fear God all their days…" (31:13). The effect of this rare, special experience is meant to pervade one's existence for the coming years. There are, in fact, several examples in the Torah of mitzvot which are meant to inculcate this effect.
Another place where the same phrase appears is regarding the mitzva of ma'aser sheni, the second tithe, which is to be consumed in Jerusalem. In the Torah's description of this mitzva in Parashat Re'eh (14:23-27), the Torah states that the experience of eating ma'aser sheni in Yerushalayim is meant to enable you "to fear God all your days." Engaging in this physical action of food consumption in a context of sanctity raises the level of the physiological act to a higher level, bringing about results that far transcend the time invested in that activity.
A third place where the Torah speaks of a particular incident instilling the fear of God for all time comes in Parashat Va'etchanan, regarding the revelation at Sinai (4:9-13). The Torah speaks of the importance of remembering the revelation at Sinai, and of transmitting the experience to one's children and grandchildren. And the Torah provides details of the experience, including the purpose of the gathering of the revelation at Sinai: "Gather Me the people that I may enable them to hear My words, such that they may learn to fear Me, all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach this message to their children." The once-in-history experience of the revelation at Sinai was meant to transmit fear of God that would last from one generation to the next. According to the Ramban (the Ramban's commentary on the Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, additional negative commandments, 2), there is a negative commandment not to forget this experience at Sinai, with a corresponding obligation to remember it all of one's days. As such, one has an ongoing obligation to remember the revelation at Sinai, and through remembering this experience one is to be pervaded by the fear of God, and then to transmit this experience from one generation to the next.
In these three examples there are four different levels of frequency. The revelation at Sinai occurred only once in history; the mitzva of hakhel is to be observed once every seven years; the consumption of ma'aser sheni is to take place annually [in 4 out of 7 years]; and the mitzva to remember the revelation at Sinai is to be fulfilled daily according to the Ramban. All of these are meant to help instill the fear of God. As we mentioned at the outset, the Torah recognizes that there are different levels of sanctity, and not all times or places are equal. There are certain times that are considered special and are marked with special events and sanctity, while other times are not. These rare experiences are to be marked with special intensity: there are sources which speak of hakhel being approached with the same awe, fear, trembling and perspiration that was felt at the original revelation at Sinai. But hakhel is not the only means the Torah provided to facilitate increased fear of God. There is also the ongoing, daily requirement to remember the revelation at Sinai and to constantly remind ourselves of its significance.
There is a similar idea regarding teshuva at different times of the year. The Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:6) writes that even though teshuva is effective the entire year, the Asseret Yemei Teshuva, the ten days starting with Rosh Ha-shana and culminating with Yom Ha-kippurim, are especially appropriate for the achievement of teshuva, and that teshuva is even more readily accepted then. The Torah recognizes that we cannot always maintain the same level. Rav Yisrael Salanter was known to remark that one should strive the entire year to be on the level of Elul; nonetheless, Elul remains "Elul."
It is understood that one cannot be on the level of Yom Ha-kippurim the entire year round, and that there will be some gap between one's spiritual level on that unique day and at other times. One is not expected to act on other days as one does on Yom Ha-kippurim. HOWEVER, the question remains, how severely does one's spiritual level decline?! At times which are specifically set aside for teshuva we need to rise to the occasion, beyond what we can maintain year-round. Yet, we must strive to carry over that increased spirituality, for it to pervade our behavior throughout the year, to whatever extent possible.
Here in the Yeshiva, we are often able to raise ourselves, to some extent, on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Ha-kippurim. The davening in the Yeshiva on Rosh Ha-shana was very strong. However, what impact did that have on the Beit Midrash when Tzom Gedalya came?! Tzom Gedalya is not expected to be just like Rosh Ha-shana, but the impact of the latter upon the former should be palpable.
The proper approach to narrowing this gap is not, of course, to weaken our tremendous rise for the special and great days, but rather to translate the messages and lessons learned on those days to elevate our behavior during the rest of the year. The davening year-round, as well as the learning, should be influenced by the tremendous religious commitment and solemnity of these Yamim Nora'im, High Holy Days. In a certain sense it is easier for people to intensify their efforts and become solemn and serious for brief periods than it is to maintain even some of that intensity. But this is precisely what we need to strive for: to reach tremendous levels on the Yamim Nora'im, and to maintain as much as possible of those gains throughout the year.
(This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Vayelekh, 5762 .)