At the end of the seven days of Succot – one festival day of Yom Tov and another six intermediary days of Hol Hamoed– we celebrate another day of Yom Tov. In terms of continuity of days, this day is a continuation of Succot, but in several places in the Torah, it is emphasized that this festival stands on its own.
There is an interesting point to be made regarding the name of the festival.
The original name is Shmini Atzeret. This is what it is called in the Torah, and this is how we refer to it in prayer. But today, this festival is better known as Simhat Torah. (Outside of Israel, these two festivals remain separate; first Shmini Atzeret and then Simhat Torah the day afterwards.
In Israel, they are both celebrated on the same day.) Let’s take a look at three questions: What is Shmini Atzeret? What is Simhat Torah? Is there a connection between the two? The sages of the Talmud demonstrate the uniqueness of Shmini Atzeret in a parable from which we can learn about the relationship between Am Yisrael and God: “Liken to a flesh-and-blood king who told his servants: Make me a big feast. For the last day, he told his love: Make me a small feast so I can enjoy you” (BT Succa, page 55).
In order to understand this parable, we must familiarize ourselves briefly with the sacrifices that took place in the Temple on Succot. During the seven days of the festival, the kohanim (priests) would make 70 sacrifices, with Jewish tradition relating the 70 sacrifices to all the humans living in the world. These are universal sacrifices offered in the name and on behalf of humanity. On the other hand, only one sacrifice was made on Shmini Atzeret, representing only Am Yisrael and offered only on its behalf.
It is a common mistake to see the Temple as the spiritual center of the Jewish nation alone. In several places in the Bible, it is emphasized that the Temple is the spiritual and moral center for all of humanity. Jewish law sees it that way as well; even non- Jews could offer sacrifices in the Temple.
Indeed, on Succot, the Temple served all of humanity, and this was expressed in the sacrifices offered on behalf of all who were alive in the world. But on Shmini Atzeret, the sacrifice offered was for Am Yisrael alone.
We learn about the meaning of this division from the parable taught to us by our sages. A man makes a festive party and invites many people, some of whom are very friendly with him and others just barely. Toward the end of the party, the host goes over to a number of his closer friends and whispers to them, “Stay a while after everyone leaves. I would like to celebrate with you, and only with you.”
This is Shmini Atzeret, the day when God whispers to us, “True, I am fond of every person and I invited all of humanity to the ‘party’ of the seven-day festival, but you – the members of the Jewish nation – please stay one more day. Celebrate one more day which will be just for us.”
Shmini Atzeret is the holiday celebrating the love between God and Am Yisrael. It is the festival whose significance is expressed in this utterance, in the strong and loving relationship God bestows on Am Yisrael.
And here is where the role of Simhat Torah fits in.
The celebration of Simhat Torah comes to express the great joy and excitement which overtakes us when we finish reading the Torah. Every Shabbat, the weekly portion is read in the synagogue, so that over the course of the entire year, we read all five books of the Torah. The day when we complete the yearly cycle of the Torah and begin a new one is Simhat Torah. We celebrate the completion of the cycle with joyous dancing around the Sefer Torah.
On Simhat Torah, we do not celebrate the holiday of those for whom “their Torah is their art,” those who study Torah for many hours every day. Rather, we celebrate the widest common denominator of Torah learning.
Every Jew, even one who does not learn Torah daily, but only hears Torah read once a week in the synagogue – Simhat Torah is his personal holiday. And even if he did not learn it, he can be joyous with the Torah since he is part of the values and commandments in it. On Simhat Torah, we dance with the Torah scroll “closed” and not “open” – since everyone is equal in its joy.
It is no coincidence that this holiday was set on Shmini Atzeret, since the peak of the loving relationship bestowed by God on the Jewish nation was when He gave us the Torah. We, the members of the Jewish nation, received the important role of providing the world with important humanitarian concepts such as morality and dedication to truth via the Torah. God bestowed this role on us for one simple reason: He loves us.
When we learn Torah, even if it is only once a week during the Torah reading in the synagogue, we express our willingness to carry out this significant role, and we are grateful for this gift. This willingness and the gratitude that goes with it reach their peak on Simhat Torah, when we lift our feet and break out in dance that comes straight from the heart; a dance of pure joy, a dance of happiness, a dance that completely expresses, “Blessed are You, our God... who gave us the Torah of truth.”
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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