This year, 5776 in the Jewish calendar, is a year of Hakhel, “a year of assembly.” The Torah tells us that, once in seven years, following a sabbatical (shmita) year, the entire Jewish nation, men, women and children would assemble in Jerusalem. The king of Israel read sections of the Torah to remind the Jewish people of their relationship with God and His Torah. This gathering would allow the entire nation to unite and relive the unity they experienced at Mount Sinai, when God gave us the Torah.
Although we don’t have the Temple today and no traditional Hakhel assembly takes place in Jerusalem, the special energy of Hakhel is accessible to us this year, and we have greater power to unite as the Jewish people. This begs the questions: How do we unite as a nation on such a grand level? What is it that unites us as a nation?
The Torah gives us two contradictory suggestions as to who was the first one who defined us as a nation.
At the beginning of Exodus, the title “nation” is given to us by Pharaoh, King of Egypt. “He said to his people, behold! the nation of the children of Israel is growing stronger than us (Exodus 1:9).” He then developed a program of genocide against the Jewish people who, he feared, would take over Egypt.
Yet, when Moses speaks to the Jewish people before his passing, he says to them: “Today you have become a nation (Deuteronomy 27:9).” Moses is referring to the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai when God said: “You shall become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6).”
The Torah, in a very subtle way, teaches us that there are two definitions to Jewish nationhood. Pharaoh defines us as a nation in terms of being the group that poses a challenge to Egypt and to humanity in general. What makes us Jewish is that Pharaoh is threatened by us and is determined to destroy us.
Moses’ definition is completely different. “You shall become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We are bound together by a vision to create a holy world, to fill the world with goodness and love. What unites us is a shared commitment to recognize the image of God in every human being and the unity of humankind under one God.
There were many tyrants throughout history who, like Pharaoh, defined us in terms of anti-Semitism. But Moses tells the Jewish people, “Today you have become a nation”; today, here by Sinai, not there, in Egypt. We are not bound because we face a common enemy and because we suffer together, but, rather, because we share dreams and ideals to create something new, beautiful and exciting. At Sinai, we became a nation bound by a covenant of faith, defined by the Torah and by God’s commandments.
As this is the year of Hakhel, we have an extraordinary potential to unite as a nation. Let us put aside our disagreements and denominational fragmentation. Let’s reach out to each other and unite in our shared commitment to morality and holiness, to love and charity, to children and education, to repairing the world, one mitzvah at a time. Let us recreate Hakhel in 2016.