Torah Thoughts on Sukkos by Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer
Were the Beis HaMikdash standing today, we would be gathering this Sukkos, upon the conclusion of the Shemittah year: men, women, children and the convert in our midst, to perform the mitzvah of Hakhel.
At the root of the term “Hakhel” that the Torah employs to describe this mitzvah is the word “קָהָל”. In Devarim 4:10, Moshe Rabbeinu relates that Hashem Yisborach had commanded him, in gathering the nation for Mattan Torah: "הַקְהֶל לִי אֶת הָעָם". In Devarim 9:10, Moshe calls the day of Mattan Torah: "יוֹם הַקָהָל". Obviously, the event of Hakhel is meant to be a reenactment of Mattan Torah. Yet what is a Kahal in contradistinction to all the other terms used to describe the Jewish people?
Let us analyze the continuum of terms: קָהָל-עֵדָה-עַם-גוֹי.
An inferior description of a national entity is that of "גוֹי". Moshe Rabbeinu describes (Devarim 4:34) the process of redemption from Egypt as "גוֹי מִקֶרֶב גוֹי" - a nation from the midst of another nation.
A notch above the term “גוֹי” is the term “עַם” - a term that is, in its very spelling, related to the word "עִם" - “with”. A national idea or ideal bonds the עַם. For us, עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל, that national ideal is the mission with which Hashem charged us at Har Sinai: "מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהַנִים וְגוֹי קָדֹשׁ".
Both גוֹי and עַם are abstractions: They describe the people as a nation, and do not address the conduct of the people at a given time. For that purpose, the Torah uses the terms "עֵדָה" and "קָהָל".
Aidah: A group convened for a specific purpose (the Malbim says that "עֵד" in the Torah always connotes two witnesses because the two witnesses are a mini-עֵדָה, and Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch postulates that they connect to יוֹעַד - designation). Nevertheless, an עֵדָה can be an "עֵדָה רָעָה". (BeMidbar 14:27) The term defines a lower form of gathering, and is thus related to the word עֵדֶר - a flock or herd.
Kahal: A group convened in a religious or refined manner. The purpose of many mitzvos is to transform “Adas Yisrael” into a Kahal Hashem, or “Kahal Adas Yisrael.” The purpose of Hakhel was to forge, again, that קָהָל.
Klal Yisrael starts as a גוֹי – a nation among nations. They are endowed, albeit, with great potential from the Avos, but externally undifferentiated. At Har Sinai, Hashem assigned us our national mission: We became an עַם – an עַם amongst seventy other עַמִים, with whom we relate in ways symbolized by the seventy plus one bulls offered during Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres (Sukkah 55b) in the Midrash.
Sometimes we are not acting in complete accordance with this lofty destiny: Then the Torah calls us an עֵדָה. We strive for the high level of achievement that the term קָהָל connotes. To attain that level requires unity. This is the unity that Sukkos implies in the combination of the four species representing the four types of Jews, and in the Gemara Sukkah 27b that all Yisrael might sit in one Sukkah. It is a unity that could only emerge from a year-long hiatus from cultivating even the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael, a Shemittah year immersed in Torah and Avodas Hashem. That unity is both the preparation and purpose of Hakhel.
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer learned in the Bellows Kollel of HTC and served as Rosh Kollel of HTC's Frumi Noble Night Kollel 1990-2001. His published seforim are: The Contemporary Eruv: Eruvin in Modern Metropolitan Areas, Bigdei Shesh on Bava Basra, and Bigdei Shesh on Sefer Shoftim. He has published many essays in major Orthodox Jewish periodicals. There are over 1,000 recordings of his lectures and shiurim, including on the entire Bavli and Yerushalmi. Rabbi Bechhofer is a rav, rebbe and dayan in Monsey, New York and Passaic, New Jersey, and mara d’asra of Congregation Anshei Palisades in Pomona, New York. He is currently working on a commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi.