Parshas Vayelech-Hakhel, from what age?
We learn in Parshas Vayelech about the mitzvah of “Hakhel,” whereby the entire nation gathered in Jerusalem once every seven years (at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year) for a communal reading of the Torah. The pasuk says, “Gather together the people — the men, the women, and the small children…” [Devorim 31:12].
Rashi spells out the details of Hakhel, based on the Gemara [Chagiga 3a]: The men come to learn; the women (who in those days did not have the educational background to really learn the Torah) come to listen; and the children come to bring a reward to those who bring them. The simple reading of the Gemara is that there is in fact no inherent purpose for the children to come. The men can learn. The women can at least listen. But what are the kids coming for? They will not even listen properly.
In light of this, it is hard to understand the meaning of the Gemara when it says, “to give reward to those who bring them”. What does this mean? If, in fact, there is no purpose to bring the children, then what reward should be granted to those who bring them? There is no mitzvah to bring a sack of potatoes!
The Sefas Emes explains, when the Gemara states that the children are brought “to grant reward to those who bring them”, the intent is not that there is no inherent value in bringing children to Hakhel. In fact, there is something to be gained from bringing them even if they do not have the intellect to learn or the patience to listen. Merely being present at an event like Hakhel — in an atmosphere permeated with holiness has an effect on the children, not necessarily immediately, but in years to come.
For example, the Gemara [Jerusalem Talmud: Yevamos] says that the mother of Rav Yoshua ben Chananya used to take his cradle and place it in the Beis Medrash, just so the baby should absorb the sound of Torah.
So too, explain the Sefas Emes, parents who make the effort to expose their children to positive experiences in life, despite the fact that the child ostensibly does not gain anything concrete from the experience at the time, will be rewarded. Merely making the effort to expose them to a positive environment will allow the parents to reap reward in the future.
This illustrates the explanation of the Gemara in Chagiga. Even though the child’s only care in the world at this point is when he is wet or hungry, somehow on a subconscious if not a conscious level, his environment has an effect on him. Parents who make the effort to put their children into a good environment — even though at the time the efforts seem in vain — will eventually receive reward, in the form of the development of spiritually developed children. This is what our Sages mean when they say, “to grant reward to those who bring them”.