This shabbat marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It is an opportunity to consider one of the outcomes of that very hard time.
This Dvar Torah is dedicated to all of those who lost their lives on that terrible day. This week’s Torah portion, VaYeilech, includes the Mitzvha of Hakel.
הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם וְשָֽׁמְר֣וּ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־כּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃
Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.
This Mitzvah requires all of Israel to gather in Jerusalem once every seven years to hear a public reading of parts of the Torah.
One beautiful element of the Mitzvah of Hakel is fellowship. The many linguistic similarities between the Sinai experience and Hakel indicate that Hakel is a re-enactment of Sinai. One of the most outstanding aspects of Sinai was the unity of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Shai Held puts it beautifully when he writes: “Israel’s covenant is, of course, about serving God, but it is also about the creation of a loving and just community. The Torah commands worship, but it also insists on deep and abiding interpersonal connection.”
He points out that when Bnei Yisrael came to Mount Sinai the language changes form the plural to the singular and the Torah says: (Ex. 19:2)
וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃
Israel encamped (Vayichan) there in front of the mountain, Rashi explains that they arrived -כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד ”as one person and with one heart”.
The question is, how did that happen. Human nature makes it hard to have a joint purpose. How did this unity of heart develop?
Rabbi Held quotes the Hasidic master Rabbi Isaac of Worka who picks up on the linguistic similarities between the Hebrew word Vayichan (encamped) and Chein (grace or charm). He suggests that the people: "sought and found” what was charming and graceful in one another, and this enabled them to approach the mountain with a sense of cohesion and community.”
What a beautiful idea - to actually take the time to seek out and identify the positive and beautiful is others.
This concept is given voice in the Rabbinic requirement to judge all people favorably.
יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר... וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת
Yehoshua ben Perachia says...and be one who judges everyone by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
We have a choice as to whether to look for the best in people or to focus on what we do not like about them.
Here is the way Maimonides puts it: "and be one who judges everyone by giving them the benefit of the doubt:” - "Its subject is when there is a person whom you do not about him if he is righteous or if he is wicked and you see him doing an act or saying something and if you interpret it one way it will be good and if you interpret in another way it will be bad - [in this case,] take it to the good and do not think bad about it."
In the aftermath of 9/11, we moved away from the practice of finding what is good in each other and rather turned towards suspicion and distrust. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of the family of humanity, we began to think that we were living in cross purposes.
As a result, I would say that we live in a less trusting and less loving world. It’s also an impoverished world. Distrust destroys opportunities for interaction, lesring and growth.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that: “Giving people the benefit of the doubt creates an atmosphere of trust and safety. This encourages more honesty and openness, and more adventurous exploration, as people know they will not be put down or scorned for entertaining new possibilities.”
How do we cultivate the ability to judge people favorably? Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler offers great advice. He notes that all we have to do is treat others like we treat ourselves. We are quick to find excuses for our own behaviors...even if at times they are far-fetched. Similarly, he argues, we should go to the same lengths to interpret the actions of others in a positive light.
As we reflect on the terrible tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, we would do well to keep Rabbi Isaac of Worka’s lesson close to our heart. If we seek to find the good in others, no doubt we will find it.
May we all be blessed with a Shabbat (and a year) of trust, fellowship, learning and love.
Rabbi Barry Gelman
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.