Daughters Near and Far: The Atzeret of Sukkot

Daughters Near and Far

The Torah is the stuff of the Jew’s life: his link to his Creator, his national mandate, the blueprint of the perfection for which he yearns. Little wonder, then, that the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar is the festival of Simchat Torah, when the annual Torah-reading cycle is concluded and begun anew.

Simchat Torah 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 to retain and absorb the attainments of the seven days of Sukkot.

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 anniversary of our Exodus from Egypt, Rosh HaShanah on 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 of Shavuot?

Calendar Twins

Actually, a 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 demonstrated 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.[1] 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.”[2]

Why, indeed, 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 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.

Thus, with 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; so, since they are all here, I will make one festival for them all and I shall rejoice with them.”

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?

Kabbalistic and Chassidic teaching 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 to marriage.

Our receiving 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? The purpose of the Exodus—as G-d told Moses when He charged him with the mission of taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt—was that it should lead to Sinai.[3]

The freedom that G-d promised to Israel was not merely a physical freedom from physical slavery, but a freedom that 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. 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,[4] to mature the freedom of the Exodus into the freedom of Torah.

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; 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 achieved.

Following the 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 Israel’s violation of everything the Tablets stood for, Moses “threw the Tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.”[5] But out of the shattered Tablets and covenant was born a second set of Tablets—a set 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, literally “return”) can evoke.

On the most basic level, the Torah is a set of divinely ordained commandments, through which man, by fulfilling them, becomes connected 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 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 Tablets” 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. It was the Second Tablets, the product of our teshuvah response to our first fall as a people, upon which G-d inscribed the essence of Torah—the bond between Him and us that transcends Torah’s laws and commandments.

Hidden and Revealed

And Sukkot is the celebration of Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah, by its very nature, is an introverted affair: a soul secludes herself with her G-d, anguishes over the distance she has created between them, and in the depth of her anguish finds the redeeming element of her sins, the power to repair and sublimate her defective past.

The private nature of teshuvah is demonstrated by a marked difference between the First and Second Tablets. On Shavuot, the entire Jewish nation gathered around Mount Sinai; there was thunder and lightning, clouds of fire and smoke, and the triumphant blast of the shofar as G-d 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 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.[6]

So Yom Kippur is hardly the environment for manifest joy and celebration. And yet, what greater joy can there be than our joy in the Torah of the Second Tablets, in the quintessence of our eternal, all-enduring bond with G-d? 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 of 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 needs to 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.

The journey from Passover to Shavuot represents the straight and true path outlined by the mitzvot of the 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 festivals 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. The autumn festivals of Tishrei represent the baal teshuvah’s return to the cold and gloom of winter to uncover the treasures hidden therein.

The Parable

Now we might understand Rabbi Joshua’s parable and how it explains the difference between the Atzeret of Passover and the Atzeret of Sukkot.

The Supernal 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 “married” to a body so 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.

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 holy origins. They deal with the material, developing and refining the world about them, but without falling prey to its adverse influences. They have left their father’s 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 redeem.

Passover is the festival of the tzaddik and of the tzaddik within us, the festival on which 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 tzaddik’s path through life.

But on Sukkot we celebrate our capacity for teshuvah, for 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 Tablets” dimension of Torah and its retention through the winters and summers to come.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Simchat Torah 5742 (1981) [7]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1]. See Our Other Head, WIR, vol. IX, no. 28.

[2]. Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 7:4.

[3]. Exodus 3:12.

[4]. See The Three Names of Shavuot, WIR, vol. IX, no. 35.

[5]. Exodus 32:19.

[6]. Ibid. 34:3.

[7]. Maamar Lehavin Inyan Simchat Torah 5742.


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