As we approach Shavuot I would like to investigate one of the important mitzvoth that applies to the Regalim – the mitzvah of aliyah l’regel. The Torah instructs us to leave our homes and make the pilgrimage three times a year to the Bet Hamikdash. What might be some of the meaning behind this mitzvah?
Packing Up –
The first major lesson and challenge in aliyah l’regel is the actual departure from the home. The official mitzvah only applies to males; however the additional mitzvoth such as simchat haregel apply to women as well. As a result, at the very least, all males of any household would be leaving home. This would seem to cause a serious security threat to our entire country! The Torah addresses this issue directly in parshat Ki Tisa (Shemot 34:24):
For I will cast out nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders; neither shall any man covet thy land, when thou goest up to appear before the LORD thy God three times in the year.
The first step in aliyah l’regel is a lesson in emunah – faith in God. This is the first of many challenges that takes on a wider scope when viewed on the communal level. It is one thing to ask an individual for a leap of faith and for them to feel comfortable when leaving their property unguarded. It is quite another to find an entire country away for the week, leaving a “will be back soon” sign hanging on the border.
Not Home Alone –
The opening Mishnah in Chagigah defines those that are obligated and those who are exempt. We read a surprising Mishnah concerning the obligation of children. According to Bet Shamai a child is exempt if they are too young to sit on the shoulders of their father and be carried to Har Habayit. According to Bet Hillel the child has to be able to walk by himself while holding the father’s hand. In any case this is much younger that the standard bar mitzvah definition that we are used to. The Gemara is bothered by this and suggests that the nature of the obligation is that of chinuch, education towards mitzvoth, but not a full-fledged obligation. Even if we accept the position of the Gemara, I believe it is still significant to note that we do not have a similar description in the Mishnayot in any other area of halacha. In general we assume that we need to educate the young when they are able to comprehend and find meaning in what they are being trained to do. These two ages seem to be very premature in this regard.
I think that the rationale behind bringing the children is a fundamental element of the mitzvah. The experience of aliyah l’regel is not simply a halachik act to be fulfilled as prescribed – the experience itself is a major factor. While a young child may be exempt from performing official acts, they are ripe to absorb monumental experiences. One can only be jealous of those children whose first childhood memories consisted of a sea of people flocking to the Bet Hamikdash, a view which they saw from riding high on the shoulders of their father. The all-encompassing nature of the travel from home and the visit to the Mikdash would certainly leave a significant mark on them. Maybe, in ages being suggested that seem premature to us, we are being taught that we need to be very careful about providing our children with solid spiritual experiences from a very young age.
Being There –
The two major purposes given for this mitzvah are to see and to be seen. At first glance (pun intended) this seems very strange as the other side of the equation is God, who is being seen and sees us. This, of course, needs to be understood as a metaphor as God is not a physical being, while at the same time it still very much obligates us physically. I believe it is clear that the intent here is to be present in the location where God’s presence is so clearly felt as if we could actually see him and we are practically being viewed by God Himself.
The Torah uses a unique name of God when instructing us to fulfill this mitzvah. In both Parshat Mishpatim and Ki Tisa, we are told to appear before ADON Hashem. In general, the word ADON is not used to describe God. We find the term in many interpersonal relationships between humans where one is clearly subservient to the other. For example, the phrase is used often in the exchange between Yosef and the brothers in Egypt before Yosef reveals who he actually is. The brothers constantly refer to Yosef as ADON. The connotation here is one of lack of symmetry and total dependence. Similarly, our pilgrimage is undertaken not in order to arrive at the Mikdash, take a selfie and post it on Instagram. We arrive to “see God”, to experience the grandeur of God in ways that can only be felt in the Mikdash. We arrive to be counted by God and be seen by Him, which alludes to his special attention that he provides to His people and His land. We refer to Eretz Yisrael as the land that “God has his eyes on from the start of the year until its conclusion”.
Once again, I think we find that this mitzvah is not only about a physical requirement, but rather requires a state of being, a feeling of experience and presence. This compliments our comments earlier about the need to bring even young children on Aliyah l’regel.
In addition to the central themes that we have discussed, there is a very powerful fringe benefit to all of the above. Not only do we experience being in the presence of God but we do it together with the rest of the nation. One can only imagine the power of the experience of seeing Jews of all shapes, sizes and attitudes joining together, rallying around our common denominator.
The most extreme manifestation of this is in the halacha that does not even allow the residents of Yerushalayim to rent out space to the olim. Anyone who shows up is entitled to free space during the highest seasons of the year! (The gemara tells us that as a gesture it was customary for the olim to leave the hides of the animals from the sacrifices to the “landlords”, in appreciation for their hospitality.) The strong feelings of camaraderie were also reflected in the technical halachot of ritual purity. While on every other day of the year the general populace was not diligent about the minutiae of these rules and therefore the more adherent would avoid coming in contact with them, during the Regel all Jews were, by definition, awarded the status of the adherent. In what must have seemed to be an almost magical way all Jews were equal and equally depended on.
The mitzvah of Aliyah l’regel has many different facets to it. I think that if we connect the various dots, we find a picture of a unique mitzvah where the major thrust is not simply the technical act of travelling to the Mikdash three times a year, but rather a deeply spiritual and meaningful experience.
I hope to be able to make the necessary changes in our teffilot as we experience, first-hand, the construction of the upcoming Mikdash, but in the meantime we will conclude with the words of mussaf:
ה’ אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו, מלך רחמן רחם עלינו, טוב ומיטיב הידרש לנו.
שובה עלינו בהמון רחמיך בגלל אבות שעשו רצונך.
בנה ביתך כבתחילה וכונן מקדשך על מכונו
והראנו בבנינו ושמחנו בתיקונו והשב שכינתך לתוכו
והשב כוהנים לעבודתם ולויים לדוכנם, לשירם ולזמרם.
והשב ישראל לנויהם.
ושם נעלה ונראה ונשתחווה לפניך בורא עולם
בשלוש פעמי רגלינו בכל שנה ושנה
ככתוב בתורה: “שלוש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני ה’ אלקיך במקום אשר יבחר,
בחג המצות ובחג השבועות ובחג הסוכות
ולא יראה את פני ה’ ריקם
איש כמתנת ידו כברכת ה’ אלוקיך אשר נתן לך.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.