A story is told of a great tzaddik and his rebbetzin who possessed almost no material items. They owned only one item of significance: a special pair of tefillin. One year on Sukkos eve, the husband chanced upon a lovely esrog and wanted very much to buy it, but had no money with which to pay for it. Eager to fulfill the upcoming obligation to take the four species, he sold his tefillin in exchange for the beautiful fruit. When his wife found out what he had done she became angry. She took the esrog and threw it on the ground and it became invalidated. Calmly, the husband turned to his wife and said, “We have no tefillin and we have no esrog. Let us at least have shalom bayis (marital accord and harmony.”)
On Shemini Atzeres we also have no mitzvos. Unlike the holiday of Succos that precedes it, this day (two in the Diaspora) does not come along with any distinctive commandments, nor does it demand much in terms of advanced preparation. Neither does it seem to have any particular identity; perhaps it is the least understood of all of the Jewish holidays. What exactly is the nature of Shemini Atzeres and why did Hashem include this day in the Jewish calendar?
Before we attempt to address these questions, let us first explain the unusual sequence of the month of Tishrei. Tishrei opens with the most somber of settings. On Rosh Hashana we sound the shofar and proclaim God as our Lord and King. He sits before His books of judgment to determine who should live and who, God forbid, should not.
The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, soon follows. It is then that we beseech Hashem for forgiveness for the iniquities which we have committed, and pledge to improve our behavior in the year to come. We spend the day in great fear, fasting and abstaining from the most basic of physical activities in hope for divine mercy.
Succos comes next. Its primary purpose is to help us internalize the important achievements of the Yamim Noraim. When we sit in the sukkah and look up at the sky through its incomplete, temporary covering, we are reminded of our true Source of protection, as well as the direct role that Hashem plays in our daily lives. This brings us to a great sense of humility, and diminishes our desire to sin.
We also attempt to negate the effects of the evil inclination by taking the four species on each day of Succos (other than Shabbos) and shaking them in all six directions. In the words of the Talmud (Sukkah 37b), “(The species are waved) to and fro in order to restrain harmful winds; up and down, in order to restrain harmful dews.” According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (Pre Tzadik, p. 262), the “harmful winds” to which the Talmud refers are wicked desires. The “harmful dews” refer to heretical thoughts.
All of these described actions from Rosh Hashana through Succos fall into the general category of “sur mei’rah“, abstention from evil conduct. The goal in each case is to rid us of the evil which has permeated and sullied our souls throughout the course of the year.
Shemini Atzeres, on the other hand, introduces a new dimension to our relationship with Hashem. For the first time, we focus on “asei tov“, building a new bond with our Creator through the active performance of positive deeds. On Shemini Atzeres / Simchas Torah the focus becomes a close, intimate connection with our most holy possession, Hashem’s Torah.
In fact, the word “Atzeres” is derived from the Hebrew atzor, which means to remain behind, separate from the rest of the group.
Hashem says to Israel, “I have detained you to remain with Me (on Shemini Atzeres).” This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days. When the time came for them to leave, he said, “My sons, please, stay with me just one more day, for it is difficult for me to part with you!” (Rashi to Leviticus 23:36)
Rashi’s comments are based on the words of the Talmud, found in Sukkah 55b.
To what do the seventy bulls that were offered during the seven days of (Succos) correspond? To the seventy (gentile) nations. To what does the single bullock (of Shemini Atzeres) correspond? To the unique nation (I.e. the Jewish people.) This may be compared to a king who said to his servants, ‘Prepare for me a great banquet’, but on the last day he said to his beloved friend, ‘Prepare for me a simple meal that I may derive benefit from you’.
As the Talmud makes clear, the idea of atzeres is to add a special, intimate dimension to the primary, preceding festival. Following the seven day period of Succos comes a special addendum, to help solidify our relationship with our Maker. For this special “bonding time”, removed from the presence of the gentile nations, no extra mitzvos are required. The simple union of Hashem with His people is sufficient.
On Simchas Torah we show our strong sense of love and commitment by dancing with the Torah in circles. As we dance round and round, we strengthen our level of holiness, building a strong defense against future sinful urges.
What emerges is a whole new perspective of Shemini Atzeres / Simchas Torah. What appeared at first to be an unclear and insignificant addendum to Succos now emerges as the climax of the entire month of Tishrei! All of the effort which we exerted in cleansing ourselves from our impurities of the past is now channeled into the creation of a new bond with Hashem, one built on the love which we possess for Him and His Torah.
Though we have no mitzvos, we can use Shemini Atzeres to achieve the ultimate in shalom bayis, between us and our Maker.
May we merit achieving a true level of Simchas Torah, of joy and elation with Hashem’s holy Torah, and use that as an inspiration for a year of continued growth and spiritual achievement.