Psalms 35:9,18: And my soul shall exult in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation. … I will thank You in a large assembly; in a mighty people I will praise You.
An extremely devastating hurricane in Houston followed by another in Florida and took over much media attention for the better part of a week. Our hearts go out to those impacted by the storm.
For those who were touched by it and spared from catastrophe, it is a time to fulfill that which King David spoke of in Psalms 35. There are a number of tales in the Torah of individuals or groups who were spared from certain death, who reacted through singing praises of the Almighty. Such an attitude is certainly warranted today, for those who lived through a hurricane, especially if their damages were zero to nothing and all escaped in safety.
Parshat Vayakhel, the second of our double-parsha this Shabbat, describes the once in every seven years that the entire nation would gather in Jerusalem for Hakhel: “Then, Moses commanded them, saying, ‘At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Succoth, [after] the year of release, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your G-d, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears’.” (31:10-11)
It is interesting that there is a debate as to when this would take place. Rashi and Rabbenu Bechaye say it was in the Sukkot immediately after the Shmittah year, in the eighth year. Targum Yonatan and R Yosef Bkhor Shor say that it is after 7 years from the last Hakhel, in the actual Shmittah year — at a time when people don’t need to tend to their fields and gardens, they can all afford to go to Jerusalem.
The Ramban on Parshas Reeh makes it clear that we pasken like the approach that says Hakhel would take place on the Sukkos immediately after the Shmittah year ended.
Essentially, anyone who had violated the rules of the Torah and worked during Shmittah deserved to have their crops ruined through untending, and this was a simple way to punish those people, through requiring them to leave their homes and head to Jerusalem.
These two approaches bespeak of two different attitudes we can have when looking at our Jewish lives. Are we to gather at the end of a year when we have been abiding by the rules of Shmittah, not tilling the soil or planting any crops, relying solely on the benevolence of G-d?
Or are we to gather to celebrate what have hopefully been successful years of work and produce, giving ourselves a jumpstart for a year that may prove to be difficult because we’ll be observing Shmittah, but which works because we are so connected with G-d and the Land, as inspired by the great gathering that kicks off our Shmittah year experience?
The approach of having it after the Shmittah year is like celebrating a long marriage which has had its ups and downs, but has weathered its way through storms.
On the other hand, having it at the beginnin of the Shmittah year is like celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding; we know we should be excited because we’ve accomplished all that was necessary to prepare for this day and yet, we don’t know what the future will brings (just as the coming year is uncertain).
Will the bar or bat mitzvah choose to live a life of mitzvos? Will the newlyweds learn to live with one another in harmony, work through their kinks, and come out stronger as they grow together?
Both are legitimate, which is why both views exist. But it’s a significant question for us to ask ourselves, to consider how we view our relationship with G-d.
How much of our gratitude over the aftermath of a storm comes from the perspective of what could have been? How cynical are we about meteorologists and the hype they create? Will we pay attention next time? How do we view G-d’s role in the world? Do we see all that happens as being His master plan? Do we think our behavior impacts what G-d does? Do we think the cause-and-effect equation of human input determining divine reaction is one which has global ramifications?
All this impacts how we respond toward G-d when all is over. With Rosh Hashana almost upon us, we ought to be asking ourselves what we believe. And if G-d is central to our approach to life, we ought to thank Him at every turn.