At the conclusion of the high holiday season, and the very culmination of the entire festival cycle, comes Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, which are simultaneously distinct festivals in their own right, and concluding components of the holiday of Sukkos itself. In Israel, these are celebrated on the same day, the eighth day after Sukkos begins, while outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeres is celebrated on the eighth day, and then Simchas Torah is observed on the ninth. In both cases, they essentially represent a single theme, which is the ultimate culmination, celebration, and integration of everything that has come before. “Shemini” means “eight,” and “Atzeres” means “to stop.” On this eighth day, we stop and reflect on the entire process that we have just completed. The sages teach that the holiday of Sukkos has been like a celebration that the king throws for his entire kingdom. At the very end of the festival, all of the guests say their goodbyes and head home. But the king detains his beloved child and says ‘stop, wait, spend one more day with me before you go back to your daily life.’
The theme of Simchas Torah is likewise one of intense closeness and completion. The name means “the celebration of the Torah,” and one might wonder why we would be celebrating the Torah now rather than on the holiday of Shavuos when it was given. Yet the Torah that we celebrate on Simchas Torah is subtly different from the Torah that was celebrated on Shavuos. Moses shattered the first set of tablets that he brought down from Mount Sinai when he descended forty days after Shavuos and found that the nation had built the golden calf. He then climbed the mountain and begged forgiveness for forty days. Then he spent a third period of forty days on the mountain carving a second set of tablets to replace the first set that he had shattered. It was on Yom Kippur that this third period of forty days ended and Moses descended with the second set of tablets, indicating that the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven. Simchas Torah, two weeks after Yom Kippur, is a celebration of these second tablets. Whereas the first tablets were more miraculous in that they were the handiwork of God Himself, the second set has an advantage in that they represent “teshuvah/return” and “kapara/atonement,” the awareness that we can come back and reunite even after we have fallen and strayed. This reunification is the greatest joy. And this is why Simchas Torah is the last day of Sukkos, which is the time known uniquely as “zman simchaseinu/the time of our joy.”
Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are celebrated in a very particular fashion. The annual cycle of reading the Torah is completed with the final portion of Deuteronomy, and then it is immediately begun again with the reading of the opening portion of Genesis. But the primary practice of the holiday is dancing with the Torah in circles known as “hakafot,” which means “to go around.” On the first six days of Sukkos, the congregation makes a circuit around the Torah each day carrying four species of plants. On the seventh day (known as Hoshana Rabba), seven revolutions are made around the Torah. And then on Simchas Torah, the Torah itself is lifted and carried as the congregation makes seven formal circuits around the synagogue. This is followed by dancing in circles for hours, similar to the traditional “horah” circle-dance that many are familiar with from Jewish weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and other celebratory events. Why is it that Jews are always dancing in circles, and what do these circles represent specifically on these last days of the festivals?
It is no coincidence that we end the festival cycle by going in circles. It is also significant that the way we make our circles at the end of the process is specifically by dancing around them. The annual cycle – which begins with the liberation of Passover, continues with the revelation of Shavuos, and concludes with the celebration of Sukkos – takes us into the light, and then sends us back out into the darkness, and then around and around again. The traditional circle dance even includes this inward and outward motion, as we converge toward the center and then retreat back to a wide circumference again, all the while continuing to progress in a circular motion. The significance here is that the darkness does not make us despondent, but rather it makes us dance. We are not frustrated by the cyclical nature of our reality. As passionately as we desire revelation and reunion, as the holidays draw to a close we recognize that we have a job to do and a responsibility to return to the darkness in order to alleviate it for those who continue to be lost within it.
Yet before we leave the palace and the king, we “stop/atzur” on the “eighth day/shemini” – Shemini Atzeres – to revel in the recognition of our true and inevitable closeness. We dance on Simchas Torah with the second set of tablets specifically, rejoicing in the knowledge of the infinite power of “teshuvah” and our ability to be one even as we seem to be distant and distinct. We dance back out of the light and back into the darkness with the awareness that we are simply fragments of Godliness concealed. We will lose this consciousness at times. Yet if we continue to dance with the Torah and embrace the practices that it provides us, we will not only return to the light once again, but we will work to reveal our Godly core and thereby make the darkness shine.