Years ago, a coworker told me a story about the Texas congregation in which she grew up. One year, the congregation hired a new rabbi, who began his service during the summer when attendance at Shabbat services was sparse. And so, on Rosh Hashana, when the rabbi looked out over the packed sanctuary, he said, “If you’re only going to come once a year, don’t bother — I don’t need you.” A few weeks later, the synagogue’s board met and fired the rabbi because he had insulted the big donors.
The board was right to fire the rabbi — but they did it for the wrong reason. Of course, it’s never a good idea for a rabbi to alienate donors, but something more important was at stake. The Texas rabbi had failed to pay attention to the Torah he was supposed to be teaching.
Vayelech, which is always part of the High Holy Day season, teaches things that are crucial to remember at this time of year, including the hachel. The Torah says:
“And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year of release, at the festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this teaching — this Torah — aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children, and the strangers [or converts] 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.”
What stands out is that “men, women, children” are all included in this commandment. It is absolutely clear that the Torah is not just the possession of the religious leadership — the kohanim and Levi’im — not just the possession of men, not even just the possession of adults. The Torah is explicit: Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people — born Jews and Jews by choice, observant and nonobservant, shul-goers and shul-avoiders.
The people who come to shul one, two, or three days a year don’t have to come at all. They could go to work, to the mall, to a movie, or just stay home, but they choose to come to shul. They may say they come to connect with their roots, out of respect for their parents, or to give their kids a sense of Jewish identity. However, I believe that on some level it is the prompting of a Jewish soul, the soul that the midrash teaches joined with the souls of all the Jews who would ever live and stood at Sinai to hear the voice of God. And as long as the smallest ember of that soul remains, the fire can be ignited.
In today’s Jewish communities, the Yamim Nora’im are the modern equivalent of the hachel; they bring Jews into shuls — men, women, and children; observant and nonobservant; committed and marginal — all the souls that stood at Sinai come together to hear the Torah, which is the possession of everyone.
When Jews gather for the High Holy Days, it is a time full of possibilities. Some will be inspired to learn, to encounter God, and to observe the mitzvot in ways they had not in the past. As long as there is a Jewish soul, all things remain possible.
The Texas rabbi was wrong. A person who comes to shul once a year is a Jewish soul, and the Jewish people need every one. God needs every one. We’re so glad you are here.