Each week of the year, another of the Torah's 54 parshiot
(sections) is studied, publicly read in the synagogue, and
its lessons applied to daily living. Thus the Jew lives
with the Torah: the Five Books of Moses are his calendar,
their chapters and verses marking, defining, molding and
inspiring the weeks and days of his year.
is the day on which we conclude the annual Torah-reading cycle. On this day,
we read the Torah section of Vezot Haberachah, (Deuteronomy 33-34),
and immediately begin a new Torah-reading cycle with the reading of the first
chapter of Genesis.
means The Rejoicing of the Torah, for the Torah rejoices on this day. The
Torah is the stuff of the Jew's life: his link to his Creator, his national
mandate, the very purpose of his existence. But the Jew is no less crucial
for the Torah than the Torah is for the Jew: it is he and she who devote their
life to its study, teaching and practice; he and she who carry its wisdom
and ethos to all peoples of the earth; he and she who translate its precepts
and ideals into concrete reality.
So if we rejoice in the Torah on Simchat Torah, lifting its holy scrolls
into our arms and filling the synagogue with song and dance, the Torah, too,
rejoices in us on this day. The Torah, too, wishes to dance, but lacking the
physical apparatus to do so, it employs the body of the Jew. On Simchat Torah,
the Jew becomes the dancing feet of the Torah.
Why Not on Shavuot?
immediately follows the festival of Sukkot. Indeed, the biblical name for
Simchat Torah is Shemini Atzeret, which means the Eighth Day of Retention;
for the function of this festival is for us to retain and absorb the attainments
of the seven days of Sukkot.
land of Israel, where the festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah is observed
for two days, the name Shemini Atzeret is usually applied to the first day
and Simchat Torah to the second--the day on which the actual conclusion and
beginning of the Torah takes place. In essence, however, the two days constitute
a single festival, and the name Shemini Atzeret applies to both its days).
But why celebrate
Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret, the 22nd (and 23rd) day(s) of the month
of Tishrei? As a rule, the festivals are located at points on the calendar
that mark the historical sources of their import and significance: Passover
is observed on the 15th of Nissan, the anniversary of our Exodus from Egypt
on Passover; Rosh HaShanah occurs on the 1st of Tishrei, the date of the creation
of man; and so on. Accordingly, would it not have been more appropriate to
rejoice over the Torah on the 6th of Sivan, the day in which G-d revealed
Himself to us at Mount Sinai and granted us the Torah as our eternal heritage?
Indeed, we mark
that date with the festival of Shavuot--a festival devoted to reexperiencing
the revelation at Sinai and reiterating our covenant with G-d forged by Torah.
Yet our joy in the Torah is reserved for the festival of Shemini Atzeret--a
date with no apparent historical connection to our relationship with the Torah.
One might explain
that our living with Torah through the annual reading cycle, studying it and
implementing it in our daily lives, is of greater significance than our original
receiving of it at Sinai. But this itself requires explanation: Why do we
conclude and begin the Torah on Shemini Atzeret? Why did Moses, who established
the Torah reading cycle, not schedule it to end and recommence on the festival
closer look at Shemini Atzeret and Shavuot reveals a striking resemblance
between the two festivals. Shavuot, too, carries the name Atzeret, for it,
too, serves as a vehicle of retention and absorption for the festival that
precedes it. The resemblance is further intensified by the fact that, like
Shemini Atzeret, Shavuot is also an eighth day of retention--a one-day
festival which culminates a cycle of seven. Shemini Atzeret immediately follows
the seven days of Sukkot, while Shavuot closes the seven-week sefirah
count begun on Passover.
The two Atzerets
mirror each other across the yearly cycle. The Jewish year is like a circle
with two poles--two key months, Nissan and Tishrei, are both considered, each
in its own realm, to be the first and head of the entire year. Nissan 15 is
the date of the Exodus, and begins the seven-day festival of Passover. Exactly
six months later, on the 15th of Tishrei, begins the other seven-day festival
of the Jewish year, Sukkot. And both of these seven-day festivals are capped
by a one-day Atzeret. The only break in the symmetry is the fact that the
Atzeret of Sukkot is a literal, contiguous eighth to its seven days, while
Passover's Atzeret is a more distant eighth, following a count of 49 (7 times
7) days that begins on the second day of Passover.
This leads the
talmudic sage Rabbi Joshua ben Levi to say: The Atzeret of the festival of
Sukkot ought to have been fifty days later, like the Atzeret of Passover.
does Shemini Atzeret immediately follow Sukkot? Rabbi Joshua offers the following
parable in explanation:
A king had many daughters. Some of them were married off nearby, and some
of them were married off in faraway places. One day, they all came to visit
with the king, their father. Said the king: Those who are married off nearby
have the time to go and come; but those who are married off afar, do not have
the time to go and come. Since they are all here with me, I will make one
festival for them all and I shall rejoice with them.
the Atzeret of Passover, when we are coming from winter into summer, G-d says:
They have the time to go and come. But with the Atzeret of Sukkot, since we
are coming from summer into winter, and the dust of the roads is difficult,
and the byroads are difficult ... G-d says: They do not have the time to go
and come; since they are all here, I will make one festival for them all and
I shall rejoice with them (Midrash Rabbah, Song
of Songs 7:4).
What is an Atzeret?
To better understand
the significance of Rabbi Joshua's question and the answer provided by his
parable, we must first examine the concept of Atzeret. Why does a festival
require an Atzeret? What is the difference between an Atzeret that immediately
follows a festival and one that comes several weeks later?
masters explain that an Atzeret is the absorption and internalization of what
was earlier realized and expressed on a more external level. Atzeret is what
digestion is to eating, what assimilation is to study, what conception is
of the Torah on Shavuot is the Atzeret of our liberation from slavery seven
weeks earlier. On Passover we became a free people--free of the taskmaster's
whip, free of subjugation to the cruelest, most debased society on earth.
But what is freedom? How is it to be digested, internalized and integrated
into our day-to-day existence? Is it freedom from responsibility, from the
burden of moral choices, from purpose and definition to life? If such is freedom,
then the most liberated creature on earth is ... the slave! Indeed, this was
the freedom some Jews yearned for when they complained to Moses several months
later, We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt, for free.
When G-d revealed
Himself to Moses in the burning bush and charged him with the mission of taking
the children of Israel out of Egypt, He expressed to him the nature of the
freedom to be bestowed upon the newborn nation. "This is your sign that
I have sent you", said G-d. "When you take this nation out of Egypt,
you shall serve G-d at this mountain."
of the Exodus was that it should lead to Sinai. The freedom that G-d promised
to Israel was not merely freedom from the geographical borders of Egypt, but
freedom from all constraints and limitations, physical or psychological, external
or internal. Freedom from doubt, freedom from hazard and inconsistency, freedom
from servitude to ones own nature, drives and desires. Freedom which enables
the soul to realize her full potential, to experience her intrinsic bond with
her essence and source, to actualize her mission and purpose in life. In other
words, the freedom to be fully and uninhibitedly oneself. Such freedom is
possible only through Torah, the divinely authored blueprint for creation
which guides and directs us toward the understanding and actualization of
who and what we truly are.
So every year,
after receiving the gift of freedom on the 15th of Nissan, we embark on a
49-day process of absorbing and internalizing it--a process which culminates
in the Atzeret of Shavuot. For seven weeks we labor to assimilate the true,
inner significance of the Exodus into the 49 traits and sub-traits of our
souls, to mature a circumstantial liberty into a state of inherent freedom.
Thus we graduate
(as Rabbi Joshua expresses it) from winter to summer. From the chill of aimlessness
to the warmth of passionate purpose; from the hardship of struggle to the
delight of achievement; from the gloom of ignorance to the clear summer light
of wisdom and understanding.
Then, six months
later, come the festivals of Tishrei.
The Second Tablets
For life is
not the unbroken progression of development and growth that we plan it to
be. Instead, there are blunders, failings and regressions. Our life as a nation
was no different: a few short weeks after we stood at Sinai, beheld our Creator,
and attained the pinnacle of freedom and perfection, the Golden Calf was being
worshipped in the Jewish camp.
But every fall
also provides the momentum for a subsequent rise. The debacle of the Golden
Calf gave us Yom Kippur--the holiest day of the year, and the source of an
even deeper connection to Torah than the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot had
revelation at Sinai, G-d gave Moses the Two Tablets of the Covenant on which
He had inscribed the Ten Commandments which encapsulate the entirety of Torah.
Upon beholding Israels violation of everything the Tablets stood for, Moses
threw the Tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.
But out of the shattered tablets and covenant was born a second set of tablets--a
set of tablets containing the Torah on a level that the earlier set did not,
and could not, include. On the 10th of Tishrei, observed ever since as Yom
Kippur, G-d gave us the Second Tablets, conveying to us a dimension of Torah
that only the regenerative power of teshuvah (repentance, lit. return)
On the most
basic level, the Torah is a set of divinely-ordained precepts, a list of do's
and dont's which outline the manner in which the Creator of life desired that
it be lived; to act accordingly is to connect to G-d as the instrument of
His will. This was the dimension of Torah that G-d inscribed on the First
Tablets. But the Torah is much more than that, as evidenced by the fact that
Torah itself provides the formula for teshuvah.
To rebuild a
shattered relationship, one must access that part of the relationship that
was never damaged in the first place. The possibility of teshuvah means
that even when a person violates the divine will, G-d forbid, the essence
of his connection with G-d is not affected; and the fact that the Torah itself
includes the precept of teshuvah means that Torah is the vehicle not
only for the connection between ourselves and G-d which is expressed and actualized
by our observance of its commandments, but also for the inviolable bond that
remains forever unaffected by our deeds. So also one who has shattered the
First Tablet dimension of his relationship with G-d can reach deeper into
Torah, to the very heart of the relationship tapped by the hunger, the longing,
the recoil of teshuvah, and rebuild it anew.
As long as we
did not stray from the straight and true path of life ordained by Torah, there
was no need--and no opportunity--to employ the power of teshuvah. This
is why the First Tablets contained only the conventional aspect of Torah--the
connection with G-d achieved through the fulfillment of His will--while the
deeper function of Torah remained locked in sublime latency. It was the Second
Tablets, the product of our repentant response to our first (and prototypic)
fall as a people, upon which G-d inscribed the essence of Torah--the bond
between Him and us that transcends its laws and commandments.
Hidden and Revealed
And Sukkot is
the celebration of Yom Kippur.
Teshuvah, by its very nature, is
an introverted act: a soul secludes herself with her G-d, agonizes over the
distance she has created between them, and in the depth of her anguish finds
the redeeming element of her iniquities, the power to repair and sublimate
her defective past.
nature of teshuvah is demonstrated by a marked difference between the
manner in which we received the First and Second Tablets. On Shavuot, the
entire Jewish nation gathered around Mount Sinai amidst a tremendous display
of divine power; there was thunder and lightening, clouds of fire and smoke,
and the triumphant blast of the shofar as the Almighty communicated
the Ten Commandments to all of Israel and summoned Moses to the top of the
mountain to receive the Tablets of the Covenant. But when Moses received the
second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur, no one was there; G-d instructed that
it be a silent and private affair, befitting the still, deep waters of teshuvah.
So Yom Kippur
is hardly the environment for manifest joy and celebration. And yet, what
greater joy can there be for the Jew than his joy in the Torah of the Second
Tablets, in the essence of his eternal, all-enduring bond with his Creator?
And the nature of joy is that it refuses to confine itself to the inner sanctum
of the heart. It bursts its seams, floods the body, pours out the throat in
song and sets the feet dancing. Hence the festival of Sukkot, The Time of
Our Joy, five days later on the 15th of Tishrei. Sukkot is the joy of Yom
Kippur come to light--the joy that the solemnity and inwardness of the day
had kept concealed.
For seven days the joy mounts. But as with the freedom gained on Passover,
the joy of teshuvah must be absorbed and internalized. Instead of remaining
a once-a-year experience, it must be integrated into our nature and daily
existence. So the seven-day festival of Sukkot is followed by an Atzeret--a
day in which our joy with the essence of Torah reaches its peak, and is immediately
married to the cycle of our year-round lives.
Summer and Winter
Thus, the Passover-Shavuot
orbit on the one hand, and the Yom Kippur-Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret constellation
on the other, represent two dimensions of Torah and its role as the facilitator
of the bond between us and G-d.
from Passover to Shavuot represents the straight and true path outlined by
Torah: the careful climb from the ignorance and selfishness of infancy to
spiritual and moral maturity; the step-by-step progress of the righteous individual
(tzaddik) who labors for a lifetime to develop the inherent goodness
and perfection of his soul while safeguarding himself from the pitfalls of
a corporeal and corrupting world.
On the other
hand, the Second Tablets of Yom Kippur, and their celebration and internalization
on Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, represent the triumph of the baal teshuvah
(master of return)--the one who, having succumbed to the trials of earthly
life, has exploited the negativity of his condition to touch the very core
of his soul and stimulate its most quintessential powers.
This is reflected
in the alignment of these two festival-systems with the seasons of the year.
The springtime festival of Passover and Shavuot, marking the passage from
winter to summer, embody the tzaddik's measured progression from bud
to bloom, from darkness and cold to light and warmth, from spiritual infancy
to maturity. The autumn festivals of Tishrei represent the baal teshuvahs
return to the cold and gloom of winter to uncover the treasures hidden therein.
Now we might
understand Rabbi Joshua's parable and how it explains the difference between
the Atzeret of Passover and the Atzeret of Sukkot.
King has many married daughters--many souls who have embarked on the mission
and challenge of physical life. The soul comes down to earth and is joined
to a body in order that their union should yield a progeny of good deeds:
deeds which sanctify their material environment and fulfill G-d's purpose
in creation by developing it as a dwelling for His presence. Hence, the depiction
of the souls earthly sojourn as a marriage.
Some of the
King's daughters are married off in a near place. These are the souls of the
righteous, who, though they descend into physical life, never lose sight of
their royal origins. They deal with the material, developing and refining
their own physical natures and the world about them; but without falling prey
to its adverse influences. They have left their fathers home, but never wander
too far off.
But the King
also has daughters whose marriages have led them to faraway places: souls
whose involvement with the material reality has taken them far from the royal
palace; souls who have become deeply enmeshed in the mundanity they came to
There are tzaddikim
and there are baalei teshuvah, and there is also the tzaddik
and the baal teshuvah within each and every one of us. We each have
our moments and areas of perfect righteousness--moments and areas of our lives
that remain forever unsullied by the evil we must contend with. And virtually
every man has had the experience--to a greater or lesser extent--of grappling
with that evil, being tainted by it, and being challenged to surmount the
fall--only to be driven by it to even greater heights than the perfect self
could ever attain.
the festival of the tzaddik and of the tzaddik within us. On
Passover we taste the pure, untarnished freedom of a newborn people. So the
Atzeret of Passover comes fifty days later. For it is springtime; the roads
are clear, and we have the time to go and come. We are free to methodically
make our way through the 49 steps from the revelation of Passover to the internalization
of Shavuot. It is a gradual, step-by-step journey, characteristic of the gradual,
step-by-step trajectory of the tzaddiks path through life.
But on Sukkot
we celebrate our capacity for teshuvah, our bond with G-d embodied
by the Second Tablets. At this reunion of the daughters that are married afar
with their Father and King, they have not the time to go and come. For we
are coming from summer into winter, and the dust of the roads is difficult,
and the byroads are difficult. We are journeyers along the volatile path of
teshuvah, where opportunities must be grasped as they come, and lives
are unmade and remade in a single, explosive moment.
So we plunge directly from Sukkot into the Atzeret of Simchat Torah--directly
into the immediate internalization of the Second Tablet edition of Torah and
its retention through the winters and summers to come.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe