(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
When Succot ends, we celebrate another holiday that has a unique and independent facet, but also fits in with the continuum of the Tishrei holidays – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot. This holiday is called Shmini Atzeret, but nowadays is more commonly known as “Simhat Torah.”
In Israel, Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are on the same day; outside of Israel, Simhat Torah is the day after Shmini Atzeret.
It seems as though these two names – the biblical name of Shmini Atzeret and the more commonly used Simhat Torah – express two separate celebrations with no clear connection. Shmini Atzeret is actually the eighth day of Succot, but is not an integral part of it, as is evidenced by the fact that we do not sit in the succa on this eighth day. The name Simhat Torah came about due to the fact that the yearly cycle of reading Torah portions, comes to an end – and a new beginning – on this day. The completion of reading the Torah is a reason for great celebration that takes place in synagogues everywhere.
But when we examine these two holidays that have become one holiday in Israel, we discover that the connection between them is not coincidental. Shmini Atzeret completes the holiday of Succot.
Since the great celebration of Succot should not end with a whimper, it gets another holiday, separate but connected, that lets us start the long winter with a happy and festive heart.
Why are we happy on Succot? The joy is for the completion of another year, as expressed by one of the names of the holiday – Chag Ha’asif, or the Festival of Harvest.
The farmer celebrates last year’s harvest, which brings financial security for the upcoming year. We go into the succa to remember the abundance we have been privileged with; a gift of love from G-d. When we sit in the succa we try to relive our forefathers’ experience, when they sat in the desert protected by the “Ananei Kavod” (Clouds of Glory). This experience of a Divine, protective and promising embrace is the central experience of Succot.
And still, the joy cannot be complete.
It is a rule of thumb in understanding a man’s soul that every feeling of happiness, every satisfaction, and every joy must have a purpose. When a person invests his energies for a lofty goal, then he enjoys deep satisfaction and joy.
However, when his resources are not used for a purpose that the man considers worthy, they can lead him to the opposite feelings of sadness and depression.
This important message can be summarized as: What makes a person happy is not having money but rather what he does with it.
And so, we were privileged with a successful year. The farmer collects his harvest and his heart is filled with joy, but what is the purpose of all this? How can we reap the best of this past year for the upcoming year? This is where Simhat Torah comes in to make the joy complete.
When man knows that he is walking on a paved path, when man conducts himself by the light and wise ways of the Torah, he knows that all of the abundance he is privileged to receive will be used for beneficial purposes for himself and for the entire world.
Simhat Torah joins Shmini Atzeret and provides the detail which is so necessary for completing the happiness: a purpose for life, a goal for the blessing so that the abundance leads to happy and blessed year.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.