By Naphtali Lavenda
I have always been fascinated by large Jewish gatherings and Israel’s national events. Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremonies, the mass Birkat Kohanim (blessing of the priests) at the Kotel, the Celebrate Israel parade in New York, and numerous other such events leave me awestruck. More than the pageantry, I believe it is the sheer number of Jews gathering for a single purpose or delivering a unified message that moves me.
Earlier this month, I experienced the same intense feelings from a simple recorded message. Allow me to explain.
In preparation for the High Holy Days, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future recorded a special Yamim Nora’im message by Rabbi Dovid Lau, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel. The video was then shared exclusively with thousands of communal rabbis around the world, in the hopes that they may develop and incorporate the central ideas weighing on the mind of the chief rabbi into their own Rosh Hashanah sermons.
It was only after virtually distributing his thoughts to these rabbinic leaders that I considered the implications of disseminating Torah messages in this way. While millennia have passed since it last occurred, I could hear the echoes of the Biblical commandment of Hakhel, where all Jewish men, women, and children would gather every seven years in Jerusalem to hear and experience the words of Torah as one nation. Despite the vast diversity of the Jewish people, at that moment everyone was equal, everyone was important. The sense of pride was no doubt overwhelming, and the singularity of purpose was beyond compare.
As technology develops more rapidly than ever before, we are blessed with the tremendous gift of the instantaneous dissemination of ideas. With the click of a mouse or the launch of an app, a single, unified message can be transmitted to the four corners of the world. And when the recipients of that message are established Torah scholars and community leaders, we can be sure that the information will penetrate the hearts and minds of the Jewish masses worldwide.
The fusion of technology and traditional Jewish teaching methodologies allows us to send a pure, unified message that brings Jews around the world closer together, perhaps in what we can loosely call “Hakhel 2.0.”
But the parallels don’t end there. During Hakhel, every person in attendance heard the same message, yet they internalized it in a unique way. With our modern day Hakhel 2.0, the same message can be received by hundreds of rabbis and is then individualized and uniquely distilled to speak directly to each audience. Once again, digital Torah continues to enhance the tradition of individualism as part of the collective whole.
For all of these reasons, Rav Lau’s recorded message became so much more than just another digital communication to me. I saw it as a wildly effective conveyance of Torah knowledge and values, a great unifier of an otherwise dispersed people, and a protector of the Jewish future. As such, while it is not quite the commandment of Hakhel, the parallel just makes sense.
Following the trials we have faced as a nation over the last several months, we need strong leadership, unification, and messages of hope—now more than ever. As we usher in the New Year, we must seek out opportunities to join our hearts and hands and see unifying experiences everywhere we look. v
Rabbi Naphtali Lavenda, MBA, is director of online rabbinic programming at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. He has been developing Jewish communal projects and rabbinic programming for over ten years. Rabbi Lavenda lives in Israel with his family.