Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah 5781
Shemini Atzeret is its own holiday. The minhag has been long established, furthermore, to celebrate the annual reading of the Torah on Shemini Atzeret. The Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot, the second day of Shemini Atzeret, we therefore call, Simchat Torah. Despite the fact that there is no holiday in the Torah, or established by the sages, called, Simchat Torah, there is a deep connection between the themes of the final pilgrimage festival of the year, and the last and first parshiot of the Torah. I would like to suggest ways of thinking about this connection between Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
One connection between Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is about the final pilgrimage of the year to God’s Temple and the creation narrative in Bereshit. The Ramban already hinted at this connection when he explained the Midrash quoted by Rashi on Vayikra 23:36. Explaining the word, atzeret, the Ramban wrote: “It is a gathering (atzeret): “I have held you up (atzarti) with Me. It is similar to a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to leave, he said, ‘Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me, as your leaving is hard for me!'” [That is] the language of Rashi, and this homily is taught in Vayikra Rabbah. And in the way of truth, [it means] “Since in six days did God make the Heavens and the Earth” (Exodus 20:11), and the seventh is Shabbat. Since Shabbat was alone, with no other partner, the Jewish people coupled with Shabbat…..” Ramban explains that the mystical truth of Shemini Atzeret reveals the passionate coupling between the Jewish people and Shabbat, alluding to the passionate love between God and our people. Ramban makes explicit the implicit teaching that the seventh day of creation finds its partner with the eighth day of Israel. Indeed, that is precisely the Torah readings for these days: Israel’s final pilgrimage to God’s holy Temple, followed by the creation of the world.
Another connection between Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah emerges from the way Parashat Re’ah describes our sacred calendar, and Moshe’s final blessings in Parashat Zot haBracha. Shemini Atzeret is the final pilgrimage festival of the year. Our ancestors headed home and would not return to God’s sanctuary, the Mikdash in Jerusalem, until the springtime at Pesach. The description of the calendar in Parashat Emor emphasizes the details of sacrificial offerings. Unlike that reading, however, the Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret emphasizes different themes. The first, that runs throughout Sefer Devarim, is the centrality of our religious obligation to support those who are dependent upon us with compassion and kindness. Over and over again the Torah insists that we give to immigrants, orphans, widows, and Leviim who served in the Temple without an inheritance. We are not to charge interest on loans to our fellow Jews. We are to give openly, and not begrudge the needy, even though loans are all forgiven in the 7th sabbatical year. Maimonides expands this teaching to include all human beings; gouging the poor for money only breeds hatred and resentment and diminishes God’s name in the world.
The second theme is the centrality of the pilgrimage. Three times annually, we (the men, specifically) are commanded to visit God’s sanctuary. We need constant reminders–experiential, lived, embodied knowledge–that our world has a place for God. We must build the world with a space for godliness, for holiness. The world needs God’s presence, because otherwise a world filled with violence and hatred and poverty and sadness becomes ungodly, and dangerous for all creatures. In this spirit, it is appropriate that on Simchat Torah we complete the reading with Moshe’s final blessing to the Jewish people, and then immediately turn to the creation of the world. Ever so poignantly, the Torah describes Moshe’s final moments: “Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nevo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilad as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Menasheh; the whole land of Yehuda as far as the Western Sea; the Negev; and the Plain—the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Tzoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” (Devarim 32:1-4) The Midrashim that Rashi quotes on these pesukim all highlight Moshe’s vision of Israel’s future. God shows Moshe not only the settled land, but the violent future of wars and oppression. God shows Moshe the land and the people in their prosperity and in their ruin. About the phrase, ‘ad hayam ha’acharon, “…all the way to the sea in the west,” Rashi wrote:…Read this as though it did not state הים האחרון but היום האחרון, “…until the last day.” [This means that] the Holy One, blessed be God, showed Moshe all that would happen to Israel in the future, all the way to the last day when the dead will again live. (Sifrei Devarim 357:18) It is as if God is saying to Moshe, “You have tried every which way, throughout the Book of Devarim, to teach the people the mitzvot of compassion. You have taught them, and sung to them, and lectured them, and gave them examples of mitzvot the make certain that they do not become distracted by idolatry. You have cajoled them to do mitzvot to protect the vulnerable–people, plants, animals–to select righteous judges and establish fair courts, to take responsibility for manslaughter and violence in their cities, to guard against the abuse of power by political leaders, to create cities that are safe havens for refuge. You have done everything. I created them with free will. I know they will be persuaded by arrogance and avarice, and as a result become cruel and myopic. They will enter into false alliances and become corrupt. But in the end, life will triumph, and the world that you fear will die, will spring to life, rejuvenated. My godly vision for a kind, loving and safe world, filled with the diversity of creation, will be resurrected by Israel in the end of days.”
These two holidays teach us that our pilgrimages, our celebrations, our bounty, our blessings, our lives, are to serve one purpose–to continue God’s holy work of creation. That is why we juxtapose Moshe’s final blessings, with Hashem’s visions for the future, and the creation narrative of Bereshit. We ritualize a commitment to perpetuating the work of creation, to become God’s custodians of the world and everything in it, to protect the world as a safe, loving environment, the type of world God hopes we create for ourselves and our children.
One final liturgical expression of Shemini Atzeret’s celebration of God’s optimism for humanity, perhaps even against our better rational judgment. Tikkun haGeshem, the prayer of gratitude for the fructifying power of rain, expresses the sacred quality of hope for the future. Rain falls from Heaven, penetrates the soil, germinates seed, and brings forth new life. The piyyut by R. Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Shifat Revivim, describes rain as the agent connecting all of reality, the natural as well as social and political worlds. Rain is the manifestation of God’s power that can infuse us with a renewed sense of awe, fear, respect, and humility for the mystery and hope of new life. I am not able to translate the piyyut without losing all of the allusions to verses in the Song of Songs. But what is beautiful and striking is the combination of hope, urgency, optimism, trust, and renewal that are woven throughout the poem:
May an abundance of raindrops fall from God’s sanctuary/To give life to every seed and enable fruit to ripen/May the spring and fall rains fall with their droplets/Fructifying every tree, each fruit, every leaf/Quick! Send the gazelle (i.e., the Mashiach) before his shadows flee/ (at the end of the day)/Remember me, Lord! On account of the one who planted Your Eshel tree/ (Avraham)/He established the locked garden (a metaphor for the Jewish people as humble and modest) / and the shoots of the pomegranate orchard (a metaphor for the Jewish people whose lives are filled with mitzvot) / He planted Kiriat Hannah, King David’s city, fortified with tower and troops / Strengthen his neck, fortified with glory (a metaphor for the Mikdash crowning the Jewish people and protecting our vulnerability) / Built with turrets, as all the nations of the world flow to that sanctuary / [As the leaders of all nations] hang one thousand shields all about its walls.
The hopes and prayers of the Jewish people take a profoundly univeralistic turn in the piyyut. Shemini Atzeret becomes not only an intimate moment between us and the Creator, but a universal hope for all of humanity. As we pray for rain, as we depart for the coming winter season, may optimism infuse our hearts. May we not abandon God’s vision for a future world filled with God’s divine presence, a world filled with humility and kindness, with blessing and compassion. May we nourish ourselves with the spirit of this optimism that life and the world God created is a gift, one that is characterized by differences and diversities of colors, sounds, fragrances, sights, cultures, languages, and orientations, all manifestations of God’s great gift to us. May we have the sense of purpose, and courage to embrace that gift with love.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,