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Absorbing The Joy: The Significance of Shemini Atzeret

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Throughout the year, the Jew lives with Torah. The Five Books of Moses are his calendar, their 54 sections marking, defining, molding and inspiring the fifty-odd weeks of his year [1] : every week, another Torah section is studied, publicly read in the synagogue on Shabbat, and its lessons applied to daily living.

Torah is the stuff of the Jew’s life. It is his link to his Creator, his national mandate, the purpose of his existence, the blueprint for the perfection he yearns for. And the Jew is no less integral to the Torah: it is he who devotes his life to its study, teaching and practice; who carries its wisdom and ethos to all peoples of the earth; who translates its precepts and ideals into concrete reality. Little wonder, then, that the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar, both for Torah and Jew, is the festival of Shmini Atzeret/ Simchat Torah, when the annual Torah-reading cycle is concluded and begun anew.

Shwmini Atzeret means “the eighth day of ingathering” – it is the festival which immediately follows the seven-day festival of Sukkot (the significance of “ingathering” (“atzeret”) will be discussed later in this essay). Simchat Torah means “the rejoicing of the Torah” and engenders the dual meaning implicit in its name: it is the day when the people of Israel rejoice in the Torah, lifting its holy scrolls into their arms and filling the synagogues with song and dance; and it is the day on which the Torah rejoices in Israel.  The Torah, too, wishes to dance and, lacking the physical means to do so, employs the body of the Jew – on Simchat Torah, the Jew becomes the dancing feet of the Torah.

A Question

But why celebrate Simchat Torah on Shmini Atzeret, the 22nd (and 23rd) day(s) [2] of the month of Tishrei? As a rule, the festivals of the Jewish calendar mark historical events which are the source of their import and significance (e.g. the exodus from Egypt on Passover, the creation of man on Rosh Hashanah). Accordingly, would it not be more appropriate to rejoice over the Torah on Sivan 6th, 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 Shavuos, a festival devoted to re-experiencing the revelation at Sinai and reiterating our covenant with the Almighty forged by Torah and our pledge to observe and study it. And yet, our joy with the Torah is reserved for the festival of Shmini Atzeret – a date with no apparent historical connection to our relationship with the Torah.

One might explain that “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 why, indeed, conclude and begin the Torah on Shmini Atzeret? Why did Moses, who established the Torah reading cycle, not schedule it to begin and end on the festival of Shavuos?

Mirror Image

And yet, an examination of the nature and significance of Shemini Atzeret reveals a close resemblance between it and the festival of Shavuos – indeed, it can be said to be its calendar twin and alter ego. Both are referred to by the Torah as days of “atzeret” (ingathering, assembly, retention, absorption), and are the only two festivals to carry that distinctive name. Both are one-day festivals which culminate a cycle of seven: Shemini Atzeret immediately follows the seven days of Sukkot, while Shavuos closes the seven week sefirah count begun by Passover.

The two atzeret festivals mirror each other across the sphere of the yearly cycle.  The Jewish year is framed by two key months, Nissan and Tishrei, each of which is considered, in its own realm, to be the “first” and “head” of the entire year. Nissan, the first month of spring, marks the birth of the Jewish people; Nissan 15th is the date of the Exodus, and opens a seven-day celebration of freedom, the festival of Passover. Exactly six months later, on the 15th of Tishrei, begins the other seven-day festival of the Jewish year, Sukkot. And, as explained above, both of these seven-day festivals are capped by a one-day “atzeret” festival. (The only break in the symmetry is the fact that Sukkot’s atzeret is a literal and contiguous eighth to its seven days, while Passover’s atzeret is a more distant “eighth,” culminating the 49 (7×7) day count initiated by Passover.)

What is an Atzeret?

What is an atzeret?  Kabbalistic and chassidic teaching explain it as 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.

Freedom is far too precious a commodity to be squandered as mere physical liberty.

Our receiving of the Torah on Shavuos is the atzeret of our liberation from bondage seven weeks earlier. On Passover we became a free people – free of the taskmaster’s whip, free of subjugation to the most debased society on earth. But what is freedom?  How is it to be digested, internalized and applied to one’s 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 “We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt, for free” [3] ). Freedom is far too precious a commodity to be squandered as mere physical liberty; as G-d told Moses, “When you take this nation out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d at this mountain” [4] – the purpose of the Exodus is that it lead to Sinai, to freedom not only from the borders of geographical Egypt but from all constraints and limitations [5] , physical or psychological, external or internal. Freedom from doubt, freedom from hazard and inconsistency, freedom from servitude to one’s own base desires. Freedom which enables the soul to realize her full potential, to experience her intrinsic bond to her essence and source, to actualize her mission and purpose in being; in a word, the freedom to be fully and uninhibitedly herself. The freedom embodied by Torah.

So upon receiving the gift of freedom on Nissan 15th we embark on a 49-day process of absorbing and internalizing it – a process which results in the atzeret of Shavuos. For seven weeks we labor to assimilate the true, inner significance of the Exodus, to mature a circumstantial liberty into a state of inherent freedom.

Then, six months later, come the festivals of Tishrei.

The Second Tablets

For life, as most anyone who has had that experience will tell you, 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, we had reverted to the paganism of Egypt, and the Golden Calf was being worshiped in the Jewish camp.

But descent generates the momentum for ascent, and failure can be exploited to fuel the drive for rectification and beyond. This phenomenon is referred to by the Torah as teshuvah (“return”): it is the thirst that only one who is lost in the desert can experience, the longing for home that only a wayward son can feel, the force that only a soul stretched to the limit can rebound with. Thus, the debacle of the Golden Calf gave us Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year, and the source of even deeper connection to Torah than the revelation at Sinai on Shavuos enabled.

Following the revelation at Sinai, G-d gave Moses the Two Tablets of the Covenant, inscribed with 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.” [6] But out of the shattered tablets and covenant was born a second set of tablets, embodying the Torah on a level that the earlier, pre-descent set did 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 could evoke.

For to rebuild a shattered relationship, one must access that part of it which was never damaged in the first place. On the most basic level, the Torah is a set of Divinely ordained precepts, a list of dos and don’ts which represent the manner in which the Creator of life desired that it be lived; to act accordingly is to bind oneself to G-d as the instrument of His will. But Torah is more then that. This is evidenced by the fact that Torah itself provides the formula for teshuvah; in other words, also one who has violated the Divine will, G-d forbid, has not placed himself outside of the connection with the Almighty which Torah facilitates. Teshuvah means that the Torah is the essence of an unconditional bond between man and G-d – a bond which is expressed and actualized by our observance of the commandments but not contingent upon it. So also one who has damaged the more tangible element of his connection to G-d can reach deeper into Torah, to the very heart of the relationship tapped by the hunger, the longing, the recoil of teshuvah; he can experience its untarnished essence and rebuild it anew.

So the First Tablets, which came at the end of a gradual but uninterrupted process of self-refinement and self-perfection, expressed only the “conventional” element of Torah – the obvious connection with G-d achieved through the fulfillment of His will. The deeper function of Torah remained locked in sublime latency: so long as we had not strayed from the straight and truth path of life ordained by Torah, there was no need, and no opportunity, to employ the power of teshuvah. One who sits by the wellspring simply cannot experience the thirst of the desert wanderer; the dutiful son who daily sees and serves his father cannot yearn with the intensity of his renegade brother; the spiritually sated soul cannot generate the drive and impulsion which agitates the soul tortured by its failings and inadequacies.  It is the Second Tablets, product of our teshuvah response to our first (and prototypic [7] ) fall as a people, which embody the quintessence of Torah, the bond that transcends its commandments and precepts.

Tishrei: Month and Moon

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 iniquities, the power to repair and sublimate her defective past. The private and timorous nature of teshuvah is demonstrated by the marked difference between the manner in which we received the first and second Tablets. On Shavuos, the entire people of Israel gathered around Mt. Sinai; there was thunder and lightening, clouds of fire and smoke and the triumphant blast of the shofar as the Almighty communicated the Ten Commandments amidst a tremendous display of Divine power. 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, as befitting the still, deep waters of teshuvah.

So Yom Kippur is hardly a time to express joy and celebration. And yet, what greater joy can there be for the Jew than his joy in Torah – specifically, the Torah of the Second Tablets – the substance 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, sets the feet adance, and pours out the throat in song. Enter Sukkot, “the season of our rejoicing.” Sukkot is the joy of Yom Kippur come to light, the joy which the solemnity and innerness of the day kept contained within.

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, which means that its months follow the phases of the moon. Moon and month are born, grow, mature and dwindle together: each month begins on the night of the new moon, progresses as the moon fills out in the night sky, and its 15th, night of the full moon, marks the month’s apex and “fullness.” This is why so many of the Jewish year’s festivals and special days fall on the 15th – it is the day on which the special quality of that month is most expressed and manifest. The same is true of the month of Tishrei: the teshuva of its opening days (the “Ten Days of Repentance” from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) finds manifest expression in the joy of Sukkot. For seven days the joy mounts. But as with the freedom gained on Passover, the teshuvah celebrated on Sukkot must be absorbed and internalized: instead of remaining a once-a-year experience, it must become part of our integral nature and daily existence. So the seven-day festival is followed by an atzeret – a day in which our joy with the essence of Torah reaches its peak, and is immediately applied to the cycle of our year-round lives, which is the significance of Shemini Atzeret.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

 


[1] Because of the varying length of the Jewish year (353-385 days) and the fact that several Shabbosos each year fall on a festival (in which case the Torah reading specific to the festival is read), fourteen of the Torah’s sections are paired into seven “joint readings.” Depending on the particular configuration of a year, one or more of its weekly readings may be a “joint reading” of two sections. Thus, the annual Torah-reading cycle may include anywhere from 47 to 54 readings.

[2] The Torah ordains that the festivals of Passover and Sukkot each be observed for seven days, and their atzeret festivals, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret, for one day each. To date, this is how they are observed in the Holy Land: Passover on Nissan 15-21, Shavuot on Sivan 6 (50 days from the second day of Passover), Sukkot on Tishrei 15-21; Shmini Atzret/Simchat Torah on Tishrei 22.
However, outside of the land of Israel, an extra day is added to each festival. Thus, Passover is observed for eight days, Shavuot for two, and the Sukkot and Shmini Atzret/Simchat Torah stretch for nine days – from the 15th to the 23rd of Tishrei (with the 22nd of Tishrei serving both as the eighth day of Sukkot and the first of the now two-day Shmini Atzret/Simchat Torah festival). Since the actual conclusion and beginning of the Torah reading cycle takes place on Tishrei 23rd, it has become customary to refer to the 22nd as Shmini Atzeret and to the 23rd as Simchat Torah.

[3] Num. 11:5; see Rashi’s commentary.

[4] Ex. 3:12.

[5] The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means confines and limitations.

[6] Ex. 32:19.

[7] “There is no calamity which befalls the world which does not contain something of the Golden Calf in it” – Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a.

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