On Simchat Torah, the day of Rejoicing with the Torah, we complete our yearly reading of the Torah and begin the cycle again. What is the connection between the day itself and the Sidra we read on it, Vezot Haberachah? And why do we celebrate the Torah on this day instead of on Shavuot when it was first given? In the Sicha that follows, one point must be made clear to avoid confusion. Shemini Atzeret—the eighth day of Succot and a festival in its own right—and Simchat Torah, the day following, were originally a single festival. Outside the land of Israel, however, where we celebrate two festive days instead of one, they are separated. But they are in essence a single religious event, and they are treated as such in the Sicha.
1. Shemini Atzeret—the Day and the Reading
Basing himself on the Talmud, Rambam writes that on every festival we read a passage from the Torah relating to that day, for “Moses instituted for Israel that they read on every festival its appropriate section.” He continues by specifying the readings for the individual festivals, and says, “On the last day (of Succot) we read the section beginning Kol Habechor, ‘All the firstling males…,’ and on the next day we read the Sidra Vezot Haberachah, ‘And this is the blessing….’”
Thus the reason that we read Vezot Haberachah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret is not merely, as has been suggested, to end the cycle of the year’s festivals with Moses’ concluding blessing to Israel. Nor is it to couple the celebration of the festival with that of completing the annual reading of the Torah. Nor again is it to join Moses’ blessing with the blessing that Solomon pronounced over the people on Shemini Atzeret. These are all reasons, but they are incidental. The main one is, as Rambam implies, that the Sidra of Vezot Haberachah directly concerns the festival itself.
But what is the connection between them?
2. The Unique Nation
In the Talmud we find an explanation of the symbolism of the sacrifices made on Succot and Shemini Atzeret. “To what do the seventy bullocks (that were offered during Succot)correspond? To the seventy nations. To what does the single bullock (of Shemini Atzeret) correspond? To the single (i.e., unique) nation (Israel).”
Shemini Atzeret is therefore the day when Israel’s uniqueness is revealed.
This is its connection with Vezot Haberachah. For Moses begins his blessing with the words, “The L-rd came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from Mt. Paran.” Rashi explains the reference to Seir and Paran in this way: “He first addresses Himself to the sons of Esau (the inhabitants of Seir) that they should accept the Torah, but they refused. Then He went and addressed Himself to the sons of Ishmael (who lived in Paran) that they should accept it, and they too refused.” The descendants of Esau and Ishmael here stand for the whole non-Jewish world, and the meaning of Moses’ words is therefore that the whole world had the opportunity of accepting G-d’s law at the time of Sinai, but only Israel, “the unique nation”—took it upon themselves.
Yet, although this emphasis of Israel’s uniqueness links Vezot Haberachah with Shemini Atzeret, it surely connects it more strongly with another festival, Shavuot, the “season of the Giving of our Torah.” For Moses was referring to the events which surrounded Mt. Sinai, and these took place on Shavuot.
3. The Breaking of the Tablets
The explanation lies in the last words of the Sidra, with which the Five Books of Moses close: “There has not since risen a prophet in Israel like Moses… in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.”
Rashi is prompted by the question, what precisely was the act referring to in the phrase “which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel?” He says it was the moment when “his heart inspired him to shatter the tablets (of the Ten Commandments) before their eyes.”
But why should this act have been counted amongst Moses’ virtues? It was, on the face of it, connected with an episode of Divine displeasure. Indeed Rashi writes elsewhere that “the death of the righteous is as grievous before the Holy One blessed be He as the day on which the tablets were broken.” Rashi himself answers this question, by saying that when Moses broke the tablets, “the Holy One blessed be He agreed with Moses’ opinion” and congratulated him.
But this does not solve our difficulty. The Talmud tells us what was Moses’ reasoning. He argued, a fortiori, “If, about the Passover sacrifice, which is only one of the 613 precepts, the Torah says, ‘no alien shall eat thereof,’ here is the whole Torah, and the Israelites are apostates—how much more so.” In other words, Moses was defending the honor of the Torah in not wanting to transmit it to “apostates,” but he was, at the same time, stressing the unworthiness of Israel. How then can Vezot Haberachah—Moses’ blessing to Israel—end with their dispraise? Indeed, the Sidra’s ending would contradict its beginning, for it opens by stating Israel’s uniqueness in accepting the Torah, and ends by suggesting their unworthiness to do so. It is stranger still that the final words of the Torah, whose whole purpose was to be addressed to and accepted by Israel, should concern the shattering of the tablets on which its laws were inscribed.
4. The Second Tablets and the Path of Return
We are forced instead to say that G-d congratulated Moses for the breaking of the tablets, because his act was in honor not only of the Torah but also of Israel.
Here we must remember that G-d did not congratulate Moses immediately. He waited until forty days had passed, until He gave the command, “Hew thee two tablets of stone like the first which you broke.” And Rashi does not give his interpretation that G-d’s words were a congratulation until Vezot Haberachah,on Moses’ death, forty years later. This in itself suggests that the full virtue of Moses’ act was not apparent until the end of his life.
The explanation is this. The Talmud tells us that “the Israelites only made the golden calf to place a good argument in the mouth of those who return and repent.” G-d allowed the Israelites to be tempted into making the calf only for the sake of their ultimate repentance, which was an unprecedented type of repentance: One which would bring them to an even higher level of spirituality than they had achieved before the sin.
Thus the breaking of the first tablets because of the sin of the golden calf prepared the way for the second tablets which were greater than the first—the perennial reminder of the power of repentance not merely to efface the sins of the past, but to bring man to new spiritual heights.
This, too, was Moses’ ultimate intention in refusing to give the Torah to “apostates.” He did not wish simply to defend the Torah’s honor, but rather to awaken in Israel a desire to return to G-d. He was like a father who drives his errant son from his house, not to cast him off, but to create a longing to return. This is why Moses broke the tablets “in the sight of all Israel.” He was making a public gesture, directed towards the Israelites; something they would witness and by it be changed for good.
This is why the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the day when the tablets were broken, will be transformed in the Time to Come into a day of gladness and rejoicing. At the present we see only the immediate consequences of the golden calf, the sufferings of exile, several of whose major tragedies also occurred on the 17th of Tammuz. Therefore we fast. But when Israel’s return to G-d is complete, it will be seen to have begun on the day when the tablets were shattered, and it will be a day of rejoicing.
But only when the second tablets had been commanded—the sign of the power of repentance—did G-d congratulate Moses. And this congratulation was not made explicit until the end of Moses’ life, when he was granted a vision of the “final day” and saw “all that would happen to Israel in the future until the resurrection of the dead.” For it was then that he saw the final triumph of repentance, the Messianic fulfillment of what he had begun at Sinai.
5. The Rejoicing with the Torah
This, then, is the connection between Vezot Haberachah and Shemini Atzeret.
On the face of it, we should celebrate Simchat Torah Rejoicing with the Torah, on Shavuot when the Ten Commandments were first given. But our greatest rejoicing belongs to the second tablets, which were given on Yom Kippur. And Shemini Atzeret is the end of the festive cycle which begins with Yom Kippur.
However, we must also remember that the opening words of Moses’ blessing, “The L-rd came from Sinai…” refer to the first occasion of the Giving of the Torah, so that this too must have relevance to Simchat Torah.
6. The Righteous and the Repentant
The difference between the first tablets and the second is like that between the righteous and the repentant. When the first were given, Israel was still righteous; by the time of the second, they had sinned and repented.
The righteous are men whose virtue consists of the fact that they live according to the Torah. But repentance reaches even higher than Torah. It rests on the bond between G-d and man which survives even when man transgresses G-d’s law. Thus at the time of the first tablets, Israel received a revelation from the Torah. But at the time of the second, they themselves gave revelation to the Torah. They had reached beyond it, to the essential union between G-d and Israel.
This is the relation of Vezot Haberachah to Simchat Torah:The Sidra begins with the first tablets, when Israel rejoiced in the Torah. And it ends with the second tablets, when the Torah itself rejoiced in Israel. Similarly, Simchat Torah means “rejoicing with the Torah,” and also means “rejoicing of the Torah.”
7. The Day and the Year
The Festivals were not instituted as self-contained events, days of light and joy. Our task is to bring what we feel on these days to the whole of the year. They form a sanctuary in time, whose light is to spread to every corner of the calendar.
But when confronted with this mission, the Jew may feel intimidated by its enormity. How can the secular world, from which G-d is so heavily hidden, be made receptive to its opposite, the light of holiness?
Here the Sidra gives us the precedent and the strength. For even that seeming calamity, the breaking of the tablets, was potentially the beginning of the path of return to G-d, the opening of a new and higher access to the heights of the spirit. This is why, as soon as we have read the phrase about the tablets, “in the sight of all Israel,” we begin again with the Torah’s opening words, “In the beginning, G-d created….” For by the G-dly powers within him, the powers he discovers by returning to G-d, the Jew can stand in the darkest confines of a secular order and create a new world. He can be architect and builder of a world in which “every creature knows its Creator, and where every dominion recognizes the sovereignty of G-d.”
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. IX pp. 237-243)