Parashat Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah: Rain and redemption

The Hebrew year reaches its apogee with the perfection of the world in the month of Tishrei.

simchat torah 88 (photo credit: )
simchat torah 88
(photo credit: )
The Hebrew calendar is a direct product of the Torah, the biblical directives as to the precise month, days and agricultural seasons in which we celebrate the various festivals (Leviticus, Chapter 33). The climax of the Hebrew calendar is this seventh month, which opens with Rosh Hashana (New Year) and concludes with Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. And if the Hebrew year begins with the creation of the Jewish nation on Pessah (Passover), the festival of the first month, and continues on to the Revelation of the Jewish religion on Shavuot (Pentecost), the festival of the third month, then it must reach its apogee with the perfection of the world and its redemption as expressed by Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot (Tabernacles) and Shmini Atzeret in the seventh month of Tishrei.

Rosh Hashana is the day of the coronation of God as King of the entire world, accepted by all as the God who wants life, love and peace. Yom Kippur is the Day of Forgiveness - personal, national and universal repentance which extends even to Nineveh, Assyria, archenemy of Israel, as testified to by the Book of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Succot, replete with the rich fragrance of the Four Species of fruit and vegetation identified with the Land of Israel, heralds the return of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel, certainly the beginning of the sprouting of world freedom and redemption.

After all, it is only from the backdrop of our own land and state, it is only when we are free of subjugation by any host government and must deal with the very real and complex issues of peace and war, economic and social disparities within our citizenry, medical advancement and ethics, scientific, business and cultural development, that we will truly be in a position to influence the other nation-states toward a non-terrorist, democratic government and a moral way of life based upon the seven Noahide laws of conduct. And indeed, we are biblically ordained to bring a total of 70 bullocks as offerings to the Holy Temple on Succot, symbolizing our concern for and commitment to the proverbial 70 nations of the world.

But within this context and lineup, Shmini Atzeret seems to be an anomaly, a misfit. The only "commandment of the day" is our mention of rain for the first time after the hot, dry spring and summer months, the declaration by the cantor of special praise to the Almighty "who makes the wind blow and brings down the rain." The first Mishna in the talmudic Tractate Ta'anit ordains that we begin reciting this statement of praise from the additional Amida on Shmini Atzeret until Pessah, some seven months later - and it is added to the second blessing of the Amida, in which we praise God for "quickening the dead."

What does rain have to do with redemption, and what has rain to do with causing the dead to rise to life? And then, in later Gaonic times (from the eighth to 10th centuries), the custom was established to celebrate our yearly reading of the entire five books of the Bible on Shmini Atzeret (or on the day after, in the Diaspora) - since we start reading from the beginning of the Torah once again on the Sabbath following Shmini Atzeret.

But what does rain, or even rejoicing by dancing with Torah scrolls, have to do with redemption, the apparent theme of the Tishrei festivals? Doesn't Simhat Torah seem to be a mere "tack-on," a ploy to give Shmini Atzeret some content and significance in addition to our declaration of rain? Indeed, Shmini Atzeret seems to be more anticlimax than climax, more perplexing than promising.

In order to understand the message of Shmini Atzeret, it is important that we analyze the symbolism of water as it appears throughout the festivals of Tishrei. The Code of Jewish Law mandates that we immerse ourselves in a mikve (ritual bath) on the day before Rosh Hashana and that we go to a river on the first day of Rosh Hashana to cast away our sins; we also go to the mikve right before Yom Kippur (Orah Haim, 581,4 and 583).

Water is the symbol par excellence of birth - or rebirth - since all of life originally emerged from water ("And the spirit of the Lord hovered over the face of the waters," Genesis 1:2), and no form of life as we know it can exist without water. The embryo is surrounded by water, and the sign of birth is the "breaking of the water," in the modern parlance. Hence conversion as well as repentance require ritual immersion - an active plunge on the part of the participant to recreate him/her self.

But sometimes it becomes inordinately difficult for an individual to truly transform himself, to change his fundamental personality.

Sometimes an individual is so removed from God - and even from life, if he has been intimately touched by death - that he requires the special grace and love of a beneficent God to change him, to save him from his stubborn nature, to rescue him from the abyss of death.

Torah law ordains that if one becomes defiled by contact with death, the kohen (priest), acting as God's special agent, sprinkles the special waters of the ashes of the red heifer and the individual becomes purified. In this act of purification it is God who is the active purifier, it is God who is the active healer.

On the Day of Atonement, it is this second aspect of purification which is emphasized. We read again and again the words of the prophet Ezekiel, who tells us how, in order to bring about the ultimate redemption, the Almighty Himself "will sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and they shall be purified" (Ezekiel 36:25). Throughout the festival of Succot we continue to invoke the symbol of water, with the arava or willow branch - which can only grow around riverbeds or areas of plentiful water.

Shmini Atzeret is the culmination of these prayers. The imagery of God's rain descending upon us from the heavens is reminiscent of Ezekiel's prophecy of the Divine actually sprinkling us with the water of purification and salvation. In a world threatened by homicidal terrorism and nuclear destruction, such a redemption is tantamount to "quickening the dead," offering us new-found life. And the salvation can only come when we remove the Torah from the Ark and bring it out into the world, when the Torah from Zion will cause the nations of the world to "turn their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning-hooks," when "the world will become filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas." This is the vision and the hope of Shmini Atzeret - Simhat Torah.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.