The last day of the Sukkot season, whether you call it Shmini Atzeret or Simchat Torah, is full of joy, tinged with a bit of melancholy. There is the singing and dancing around the shul with the Torah scrolls, plus, usually, a bit (or more) of imbibing at the Kiddush. However, there is also a certain sense that this intense period of connection to holidays and God is concluding. On the horizon is a long, tough winter season. As a teenager I remember this dolorous feeling while consoling myself with some illegal beer drinking at the Seudah Ha Mashiach. The very nature of this final festival is shrouded in a bit of a mystery: What exactly are we celebrating?
The famous answer to the question is that God asked us to stay for an extra day of feasting is very sweet, but not really satisfying. To begin the search for a solution to this conundrum, let’s start with the first of two questions: Why is Sukkot, leading up to Shmini Atzeret, the only holiday which offers a special place of honor to BA’ALEI TESHUVA, penitents? The Talmud informs us that at the joyous Simchat Beit HaShoeva ceremony after the most pious leaders praise God, the Ba’alei Teshuva declare: Fortunate (happy? Hebrew: ASHREI) are those whose old age (ZIKNOTEINU) atones for (the sins of) their youth! (Sukkah 53a).
Why at the happiest ceremony of the Temple calendar do we accord special place of honor to the Ba’alei Teshuva? The Pachad Yitzchak suggests that ‘we find that the Simchat Beit HaShoeva (the unique ‘water drawing ceremony’) of Sukkot is the fulfillment of the extra joy hidden in God’s choosing of the Jewish people specifically though the path of Teshuva’ (Pachad Yitzchak, Yerach Eitanim 9:8).
Rav Hutner goes on to explain the statement ATA BACHARTANU (You have chosen us) in the prayers of Sukkot is conceptually different from the exact same statement made on Pesach and Shavuot. On those festivals we are declaring that God chose us through the Exodus and the Epiphany at Sinai. On Sukkot, we feel God’s affection and attention through the prism of our forgiveness on Yom Kippur for the Sin of the Golden Calf. This is the love which flows from the second mention of God’s Name in the 13 Attributes of Divine Compassion.
It’s the second chance or the second choosing of the Jewish nation when Moshe descended the mountain with the second Tablets which triggers the immense outpouring of joy during Sukkot. So, isn’t it reasonable that a special place is given to the penitent? During this time period, aren’t we all penitents? I certainly hope so.
To put the pieces of our puzzle together, we must ask the other question. If, as the Talmud states, Shmini Atzeret is a separate and different festival from Sukkot, which demands that we recite the SHEHCHIYANU blessing at KIDDUSH, why is it called Shmini or the eighth? That name seems to declare that it isn’t separate at all. It’s the next or continuation step after the seven days of Sukkot.
The Slonimer Rebbe in his Netivot Shalom tells us that we should look for the answer in Vayikra chapter 9. In that narrative, Moshe Rabbeinu has just completed 7 days of MILUIM. It’s hard to translate that term. To me that word brings back memories of my reserve duty in the IDF, but here it’s usually translated ‘installation’, perhaps ‘practice’. Moshe was getting Aharon and his family ready to take over the running of the MISHKAN, portable temple. That day was the first of Nissan, and Rashi informs us that this eighth day was in fact the beginning of ten different projects in Jewish history. So, how is the eighth day really the first day?
The Rebbe says:
The number seven includes all the natural realities. For all the matters that pertain to nature are included in the seven days of building. However, the nature of eight is the level of sanctity and purity above all nature and this world.
There you have it. Seven represents all that is natural and this worldly. Now we can understand what is going on in the seven days of preparation for the service in the Mishkan. This world needed seven days to prepare for contact with the otherworldly in the portable Temple of the desert sojourn. It was the eighth day when contact was made and it was the first for so many ethereal things.
The Rebbe explains that the number eight figures in three holidays. Shavuot is an eight, because we finished seven full weeks of SEFIRAT HaOMER. Shavuot begins eight. Yom Kippur has its eight during the Musaf AVODA. The COHEN GADOL sprinkled the blood of his bull and of the communal goat seven times below the red line on the altar and once above the line, above this natural world toward the spiritual realm.
Which brings us back to Shmini Atzeret, which has no special observances in the Torah. There are no meals in the SUKKAH; we don’t shake the LULAV. During Sukkot we feel close to God through these rituals, but on Shmini Atzeret the sense of proximity comes from realities beyond our physical actions and senses.
This is the special intimate time of Shmini Atzeret. Sukkot celebrates the harvest and has 70 bull offerings representing the proverbial 70 nations of the world, but Shmini Atzeret is all about the unique Jewish relationship with God. We have one extra day for this unique liaison between God and Yisrael. It embodies the return from our errors, and the ethereal bond every Jew has with God. It gets us through the long hard winter. It’s a very special time.