Hakhel: What Is Fear Of God?
What The Bible Says About Learning To Fear God
Parshat Vayeilech is nearing the end of Moshe's life, and he seems to be preparing the nation for their future without him. He assures them, "don't fear! God will be with you!" But then, once his pep talk is over, he starts to talk about something that seems to come out of left field: the mitzvah of Hakhel. He tells them that once every seven years, the entire nation should all gather together and hear the Torah read to them. And he says that this is supposed to teach them to fear God.
And this raises a whole lot of questions: Why is Moshe teaching this mitzvah now, right after he gives his rousing pep talk and is getting ready to take leave from the nation? And equally puzzling, what does Hakhel have to do with fear of God? I don't feel gripped with fear each time I hear the Torah read at shul – why would hearing it once every seven years make such a deep impression?
A closer look into Hakhel may actually help us understand why this mitzvah is so crucial, and why the Israelites needed to hear it at this very moment in time. We'll see that Hakhel has important implications for the Israelites' future, in the generations after Moshe, and even for us today.
Hi, this is Ami Silver and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Vayeilech.
He assures them, that even though he won’t be there to lead them into the land of Israel, they have nothing to fear: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ – God is going to lead the way for you; God will be with you. It’s an inspiring and encouraging message.
But then, Moshe does something odd. Right after his uplifting pep talk, he suddenly introduces a brand new mitzvah: He says, once every seven years, the entire nation should gather together in the Temple and the Torah will be read to all of them. This is known as the mitzvah of Hakhel.
Understanding the Mitzvah of Hakhel
It’s… really… random, no? As if Moshe gives a rallying address to the nation, and then after all the applause and fanfare, he takes the mic again and says, “oh, and by the way, I have one more quick law I need to tell you about.” Why is Moshe telling them this mitzvah now? It seems so out of place.
But what if Hakhel isn’t just a mitzvah Moshe threw in before walking off into the sunset? What if Hakhel isn’t a detour at all, but actually is continuing the very same theme, of things the nation needs to hear before they make the transition to life in the land of Israel, without Moshe?
In order to see how Hakhel is relevant here, we’re going to have to dig a bit deeper into the meaning of this mitzvah. Once we do, I think we’ll understand why Moshe is teaching it at this juncture in time.
What Is the Hakhel Year?
Here’s how Moshe describes the mitzvah of Hakhel:
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים –
once every seven years –
בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה –
at the completion of the shemittah year –
בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת –
on the festival of Sukkot
This was one of three annual pilgrimages, when the entire nation would gather together to celebrate in the Temple in Jerusalem. But this time around, instead of just celebrating the holiday, there was an additional, special event that took place:
תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל –
You shall read from the Torah to the entire nation –
הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם –
gather together everyone in the nation –
הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף –
men, women and children.
And, Moshe says, this is all for a veeery specific purpose:
לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ –
so that they will hear, and they will learn –
וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם –
and they will come to fear God.
And then, just in case that last point wasn’t clear enough, in the very next sentence Moshe repeats the purpose of Hakhel:
וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ –
and their children who do not know –
יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ –
they too will hear the words of Torah, and they will learn –
לְיִרְאָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם –
to fear the Lord your God.
Okay, so that’s the mitzvah of Hakhel – get everyone together to read the Torah, and teach them to fear God. But some of the details of this mitzvah just don’t seem to add up. For example, Moshe starts by saying that Hakhel has to coincide with the Shemittah year. But Shemittah is the mitzvah to leave the land fallow for the sabbatical year – it’s an agricultural thing! What does that have to do with Hakhel, hearing the words of the Torah – or fear of God?
And speaking about fear of God – the stated purpose of this mitzvah – how exactly is this supposed to work? Read Torah to people, and they’ll magically come to fear God? I don’t know about you, but I hear the Torah in shul every week, and I don’t walk away gripped with fear.
But maybe in order to understand how Hakhel works – how it leads people to fear of God – we need to understand something even more fundamental: what is fear really about? If we can get to the underlying nature of fear, I think it will help us understand what Yirat Hashem is at its core, and how the mitzvah of Hakhel could help people achieve it.
What Does It Mean to Fear God?
Let’s take an example, like fear of the dark. What’s scary about a dark room? Nothing changes when I turn off the light – except for one thing. My ability to see. And when my vision is taken away from me, things can start to feel a little scary. Because as long as I can see what’s around me I know what’s here, I know what to expect, and that gives me a sense of control over myself and my environment. But once the lights go out, anything can happen, and there's no way to be prepared.
All of a sudden, I’m not in control anymore, and I’m left to the mercy of unknown forces. That’s when the monsters start to creep under the bed, and the vampires start rustling in the closet. It’s not that my room gets transformed into a haunted cave; it’s that I lose the sense of security and control I had when the lights were on.
And I think that this feeling, of being powerless, of having no control over our own situation, is at the heart of all fear, including... fear of God. Because fear of God, at its core, comes from the recognition that we are not in control. Yirat Hashem is the deep acknowledgement that there is a God, a Creator who controls all of reality, who holds the entire cosmos, and our very lives, in His hands.
On the one hand, this is kind of scary to consider. And, at the same time, this awareness is necessary for us – human beings – to be able to relate to God – to our Creator. It’s what sets this relationship apart from the regular human relationships we have. Yirat Hashem, and our awe in the face of this overwhelming God, is what lends gravity and realness to this relationship.
And this, Moshe claims, is what the people are going to learn, through the mitzvah of Hakhel. How’s that gonna happen?
Hakhel and Yirat Hashem
Well, what do we know about Hakhel? It’s a national event, where all people of all ages will be gathered together – in God’s chosen place… to hear the words of Torah, to lead them to fear of God. Does that scene sound familiar at all? Was there another time where all of these same elements were present??
There sure was. It happened the very first time the nation stood as one to hear God’s Torah – back at Mount Sinai.
What Does the Bible Say About Fearing God?
When the people witnessed God’s thundering voice speaking to them from the mountain, it terrified them. They begged Moshe, “you speak to us instead of God! We can’t handle this!” They were so overwhelmed, they thought they were going to die. But Moshe responded, “don’t be afraid. This isn’t going to harm you – בַעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל פְּנֵיכֶם – God is doing this to ensure that you will fear Him...
We often think of Israel’s encounter with God at Mt. Sinai as the moment that God gave the commandments to the Israelites. But beyond commandments and laws, there was something deeper taking place: God was forming a relationship with the Israelites, one that would last for all time. And for that to occur, for it to really take hold, the people needed to experience Yirat Hashem.
They needed to be overwhelmed by their encounter with God. It was so intense, they felt like they couldn’t survive it. And Moshe told them, this is the point. God wants you to know that He is the Creator who is truly in control; and who is forming this covenant with you.
Hakhel looks like it’s taking its cues from Mount Sinai. As if it’s attempting to recreate that seminal moment in the people’s relationship with God. But as much as Hakhel follows the form of Sinai – the whole nation, standing in one place, hearing the Torah – there’s obviously something missing.
Where’s the fire coming from the mountain? The overwhelming voice of God? Those are the things that gripped the people with fear at Mount Sinai! How could Hakhel possibly teach the people to fear God, just by following the same steps?!
This, I believe, is where the timing of Hakhel comes in.
What Is Fear of God According to the Bible?
We asked earlier, why Moshe lumps Hakhel together with the year of Shemittah, an agricultural commandment that seems to have nothing to do with Hakhel or fear of God. I think if we look at what Shemittah really is, we’ll see that it actually lays the groundwork for the mitzvah of Hakhel to fulfill its goal, to teach the people Yirat Hashem.
Because think about what Shemittah entails. Once every seven years, everyone must desist from cultivating their crops or tending to their fields. For an agriculturally based society, this sounds like a suicide mission. What will people eat? How will they survive?
Shemittah challenges the people’s most basic notions. They think that they’re in charge of the land, and they make the crops grow. But Shemittah reminds them that the earth, the rain, the growth of food, is all in God’s hands – and they need to rely fully on God to give them life.
During Shemittah, everyone learns to relinquish their sense of control, and recognize that God is the one who’s truly in control. It’s the same awareness that lies at the heart of Yirat Hashem.
So maybe now we can understand why Hakhel takes place at the end of the Shemittah year, and how it can teach Yirat Hashem to the whole nation. Because Hakhel has all of the elements of the Sinai experience – except for one crucial piece. The people are missing the overwhelming sense of awe, the one they felt at Sinai.
They need something to give them that jolt of Yirat Hashem. Shemittah, it seems, is what sets them up for that experience.
For the entire year leading up to Hakhel, they are allowing themselves to depend fully on God for sustenance. It’s a 12-month meditation on Yirat Hashem – of recognizing that there is a God who is in control of our world. And then, at the end of this year, they all gather together, men, women, and children, in God’s holy place, to hear God’s Torah.
It won’t be quite as dramatic or life threatening as Mount Sinai, but it will lead to the same outcome – וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – they will learn to fear God. They will hear the words of Torah, with an intensified awareness of the One who stands behind them.
Now that we’ve seen the more essential connection between Hakhel and Shemittah, I think we’re finally in a position to answer the question we began with. Why is Moshe teaching this mitzvah, Hakhel, right now, after his rousing speech about the nation’s future?
What Hakhel Teaches Us About How to Fear God
Well, I actually think it makes a lot of sense. Because, think about where the nation is. They’re about to undergo radical changes, as they enter the land of Israel. Not only will their lives be transformed as they leave the desert behind them and begin to build a new society; but just as drastic, they’re going to lose Moshe – the prophet who stood atop Mount Sinai and communed directly with God, who taught them God’s commandments.
As long as Moshe was alive, the experience of Mount Sinai was never a distant story. He was a living reminder of the nation’s direct encounter with God, a walking symbol of Yirat Hashem. But after Moshe is gone, the memory of Sinai could easily fade into the past, and there was a very real risk that the people would forget their intense relationship with God.
And as they move farther away from Mount Sinai, and get used to life without Moshe, the words of Torah might become just words. A legacy or tradition from a time long gone, a collection of stories and rules that are disconnected from God, and disconnected from their own lives.
When Moshe tells the people about Hakhel, he’s looking towards this future. He says בְנֵיהֶם – there will be children born in future generations – אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ – who will not know. They won’t know what it felt like to experience God’s overwhelming Presence at Sinai, to hear the commandments directly from their Source. But these children, these future generations, will need to have their own experience that can teach them Yirat Hashem, that can bring them into a close encounter with their Creator.
Hakhel is there for these future generations – the ones without Moshe, without Sinai – to give them an opportunity to develop the same kind of relationship with God, to taste something of Sinai in their own way, that pertains to their own lives.
I hope you enjoyed this video. This is actually just one piece of a much larger theme we noticed in this parsha. There’s much more discussion here about Israel’s future without Moshe, and even some terrible predictions about what will happen when they lose touch with God. Rabbi Fohrman and I got together to talk about these things and explore what they might mean, here in this context, and for us as well. Check out the epilogue!