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Alone With God

The Hebrew month of Tishrei is chock full of holidays, Yomim Tovim, each with their own unique and specifically mandated mitzvot. Rosh Hashanah has the shofar. Yom Kippur has five abstentions from various physical pleasures. Sukkot, a seven day festival, has two prominent mitzvot. One is to dwell in the Sukkah for all seven days of the festival. The other mitzvah is to take four species of vegetation (etrog, lulav, aravot and hadassim) bind them together and shake them. This command of the four species, ארבע מינים, is only on the first day of Sukkot. We perform this mitzvah the rest of the holiday to commemorate the mitzvah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. During its existence, taking the 4 species inside the Temple was another form of the mitzvah as the Torah says, “rejoice in front of Hashem for seven days.” According to the Rambam, “in front of Hashem” included all of the city of Jerusalem as well as the Holy Temple.

These special mitzvot have as their objective inculcating various ideas necessary for human perfection. Shofar is to inaugurate our recognition of God as King of the universe and for His kingship to be acknowledged by the entire world. Yom Kippur culminates our collective opportunity to admit and then atone for our misdeeds against our fellow men and for disobeying the laws of the King. Living in the Sukkah for a week emphasizes the idea that our existence as a people is dependent on God’s divine protection. The Rambam writes in the “Guide for the Perplexed,” “The 4 species are to remind us that God exchanged our dwelling in the wilderness, ‘no place of figs, vines, pomegranates or water to drink’ (Numbers 22:5) with a country full of fruit trees and rivers. It is a mitzvah performed in recognition of God’s fulfillment of His promise to our Patriarchs to establish a nation in the beautiful and bountiful land of Israel.”

When we add Pesach, which commemorates God redeeming us from slavery to become His nation and Shavuot, which celebrates our receiving and accepting of His code of conduct, the holiday system is complete. The cycle begins with Pesach and seems to conclude with Sukkot. What then is the idea behind the holiday, Shemini Atzeret, added on to the end of Sukkot? 

You should know that there is no holiday in the Torah called Simchat Torah. In Israel the celebration of the annual Torah reading cycle is celebrated on Shemini Atzeret. This Rabbinic law, to complete the reading of the Torah and begin again immediately on the same day, was attached to the Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeret. Outside of Israel, we perform this rabbinic charge on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. What did the Rabbis see about Shemini Atzeret to attach the annual Torah cycle to it?

Interestingly, the Torah has no unique mitzvah for us to perform on Shemini Atzeret. On each of the seven days of Sukkot the Torah commands us to sacrifice a bull in the Holy Temple, one for each of the original 70 nations of the world. The first day 13 bulls were sacrificed and one less on each succeeding day. By the seventh day, only 7 bulls were offered to equal the total of 70 bulls. The mentioning of this process comprises part of the Musaf prayer we recite each day of Sukkot. However, when we get to Shemini Atzeret, only one bull was offered. This one bull was sacrificed on behalf of the nation of Israel. 

We see a number of ideas from this sequence. First, sacrifices were offered on behalf of the other nations of the world before one was offered for the nation of Israel. Our Sages tell us that if the nations of the world knew sacrifices were offered to God for them before any were offered on behalf of Israel, instead of sending their best troops to destroy the Temple, they would have sent their best armies to protect the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Second, we notice that on the other days of Sukkot, the musaf or additional sacrifices were shared by the other nations. Sukkot is for all nations. The Haftorah we read the first day of Sukkot addresses this fact. However, Shemini Atzeret is just for Israel. God so to speak says to us, “You, Israel, stay alone with me one more day.” The Rabbis compare it to parents who beg their children to stay with them one more day before returning home. 

On Shemini Atzeret we are celebrating “being alone with God.” We have performed all of the seasonal commands to gain this special invitation. We have done everything to merit this exclusive and private celebration. There is nothing left to do, no other mitzvot to perform. Just enjoy this special relationship with God. We have, so to speak, arrived at our destination. 

Now we can understand why the Rabbis attached the completion and renewal of reading the Torah on this day. What is the cause of this special relationship with God? Our studying and keeping of the Torah. Communal reading of the Torah is the minimal act of communal study.

Through our continued commitment to the Torah, may we merit Hashem’s continued protection over Israel, the Jewish people and God loving people the world over.  

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach, 

Rabbi Robert Kaplan