Chapter 1

וביום השמיני עצרת תהי׳ לכם

“On the eighth day it shall be
a day of atzeres for you.”1

The word atzeres has three meanings:2 lingering, firmness, rule and dominion. “On the eighth day it shall be a day of atzeres for you,” thus means that the eighth day of the festival of Sukkos should be a firm day of lingering and ruling, to be done in a manner of dominion.

The Midrash3 offers the following analogy, which helps explain the meaning of atzeres being a holiday of lingering and ruling: “A king made a seven-day feast to which he invited all his subjects. At the end of the week he said to his friend: ‘Now that we have fulfilled our obligation to our subjects, we, you and I, shall celebrate together with whatever [remnants of the feast] we find.’ ”

During the seven days [of Sukkos], offerings are brought for all the Nations. However, the offerings of the eighth day, Shemini Atzeres, are specifically for the Jewish people. Shemini Atzeres was also established [by our sages] as the time when Simchas Torah is celebrated. Simchas Torah means that Jews make the Torah joyful by circling the bimah (the table upon which the Torah is read) while holding the Torah in our hands.

Although the Torah was given on Shavuos, we do not celebrate Simchas Torah following Shavuos, but rather following Shemini Atzeres,4 because Simchas Torah celebrates the giving of the second set of Luchos (Tablets), on Yom Kippur.

The first set of Luchos were given by G‑d to Moshe on Shavuos, when the Torah was given. At that time the Jewish people were tzaddikim [the singular of which is tzaddik]. Tzaddik means virtuous and righteous free of sin. Upon our departure from Egypt, we were at the level of tzaddikim, obeying all that G‑d told us through Moshe to do.

It is true that we were still mired in the “portals of unholiness,”5 for the crass environment in which we had been slaves left us coated with the “grime of Egypt.” However, this does not mean that we actually sinned, but rather that we were coarsened.

We observe that living in a particular environment has a strong effect on an individual, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. There are people who find themselves in an environment icily indifferent to Judaism and distant from Torah and mitzvos. A mitzvah -observant individual who finds himself in such surroundings cannot help but be affected by them. Even an observant individual may find that his performance of mitzvos lacks warmth in this environment, and that his general attitude toward mitzvos lacks reverence.

Although he continues to observe mitzvos, and at times (such as during the solemn moments of prayer on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and the joyful moments of Sukkos and Simchas Torah) attains a state of enthusiastic spiritual arousal, this arousal is only temporary. This is because the irreverence resulting from the non-spiritual environment has made him spiritually frigid and coarse.

Ultimately, frigidity can lead to transgression G‑d forbid of even the stringent commands of Shabbos observance. Not only is he not able to withstand the test [of keeping Shabbos], but he views the entire matter [of non-Shabbos observance] as if it were a fait accompli, thinking that he is helpless in this matter. Truly, this is only a result of his surroundings. It also results from his mistaken belief that his sustenance is a direct result of his work and labor, that “his strength and the might of his hand” enabled him to attain his accomplishments.6 The person is so coarsened that he thinks that he himself provides for his needs, completely forgetting that “He who provides life, provides sustenance.”7

And so it is that because of an evil environment a person descends Heaven forbid from level to level, ultimately becoming so coarsened that he falls into the depths of evil.

Our sages tell us8 that the “[Positive qualities of] virtue far outdistance [the negative qualities of] vice.” We observe in our daily lives that the beneficial effects of a good spiritual environment are much stronger than the negative effects of a detrimental environment, for good surroundings reveal latent spiritual powers. As a result, not only does a person perform mitzvos with enthusiasm, but the powers of mesirus nefesh are also aroused, so that a person doesn’t even consider G‑d forbid desecrating the Shabbos. A good environment [is so beneficial that it] leads to a firm resolve with regard to all aspects of Judaism.

Jews, upon their departure from Egypt, were coarsened but not sinful. We therefore merited to receive the Torah.

In summary: Atzeres has three meanings: a) lingering, b) firmness, c) rule and dominion. Why was Simchas Torah established in conjunction with Shemini Atzeres and not with Shavuos? When the first set of tablets was given, Jews were at the level of tzaddikim, though coarsened by the evil effect of the Egyptian environment. The good and bad effects of different environments are described.

Chapter 2

The Gemara says:9 “The Jews at Mt. Sinai had their ‘grime’ removed from them.” This means that Sinai cleansed us of our spiritual “grime.”

Because of their fine spiritual standing, Jews merited the giving of the Torah. It was for this reason that at Mattan Torah, G‑d’s Infinite Light was revealed, as the verse states:10 “And G‑d descended on Mt. Sinai….” G‑dliness was then seen by all, and the Divine Light shone in a revealed fashion within the nation, as the verse states:11 “And the whole nation beheld the sounds….” Our sages explain:12 “They beheld that which generally must be heard.”

The spiritual status of the Jewish people at the time of Mattan Torah was so great that the essence of our G‑dly souls was revealed within us. This essence is higher than the individual soul powers of sight and hearing. Thus, at the time of Mattan Torah we were able to see that which is generally only heard.

The life-force of the soul which enlivens the body is merely a glimmer of the soul’s essence, though it enlivens the organs of the body, each power vivifying the particular organ in which it resides.

During Mattan Torah, however, the “grime” was removed from the Jewish people and the physical body received its life-force directly from the soul’s essence, which transcends the particular powers. For this reason, at the time of Mattan Torah the Jews “beheld that which is generally seen, and saw that which is generally heard.” Since we were at that time on the level of tzaddikim, the Torah was given with the “mightiest sounds,” and the whole world was in a state of spiritual arousal, similar to the revealed service of tzaddikim.

The second set of Tablets were given after the sin of the Golden Calf. At that time we were on the level of baalei teshuvah, penitents. Therefore the second set of Tablets were given quietly, similar to a baal teshuvah whose manner of service is quiet modesty.13 It was for this reason that G‑d gave Moshe the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur, a holy day of forgiveness.

Thus we received the second set of Tablets through teshuvah, repentance. The Zohar14 tells us that “penitents draw down G‑dliness with an added measure of strength.” A Jew draws G‑dliness into this world with every deed he does, be it the study of Torah, the performance of mitzvos, or the demonstration of good character traits. Penitents, because of their additional measure of firm devotion, are able to draw down an even loftier level of illumination.

The verse states:15 “Out of the depths have I called upon You, G‑d.” Through teshuvah, which emanates from the depth of the heart, a profound level of G‑dliness is drawn down. It is because of this that “iniquities are transformed [by G‑d] into good deeds,”16 for a penitent is able to transform darkness into light. Instead of stumbling down the dark path of evil as he had done, a penitent walks along the illuminated and illuminating path of Torah and mitzvos. G‑d therefore transforms his previous sins into good deeds, so that instead of being filled with sin, he is now after having done teshuvah filled with mitzvos. All this is a result of G‑d’s transformation of past sins into mitzvos.

Mitzvos which are created through the transformation of sins differ, however, from good deeds ware mitzvos from the start. The latter kind are performed by tzaddikim , and resemble “direct light,” as the verse states:17 “That G‑d has made man straight,” and:18 “the mitzvos of the L-rd are clear, enlightening the eyes,” for mitzvos provide illumination. However, those that come about by the transformation of sins resemble darkness being transformed into light.

In the physical world, we observe that a child may distance himself from his father and rebel against him. When the child regrets his actions and returns to father in teshuvah, then the parent’s joy is all the greater.

It is for this reason that Simchas Torah was established during the month of Tishrei, a time when there are the two19 kinds of joy “G‑d rejoicing His creations”20 and “Jews rejoicing in their Maker.”21 [The festival of Sukkos is therefore called] the “time of our rejoicing” G‑d rejoices that we have cleansed ourselves from the grubbiness of our sins through our teshuvah on Yom Kippur, and we rejoice at having once again close to Him a measure of closeness which comes only after having been apart.

Indeed, Simchas Torah should really be celebrated immediately after Yom Kippur. It is celebrated in conjunction with Shemini Atzeres because that is a day on which firmness and strength are found in abundance.22 This is brought about through our being inscribed for good on Rosh HaShanah and being sealed for good on Yom Kippur in the lingering manner of atzeres, so that the blessings of these days are fulfilled [and linger for the rest of the year.] Through atzeres, a person gains dominion over his conduct, enabling him to fully observe Torah and mitzvos. Only then, [after a person attains these levels of atzeres,] does Simchas Torah begin, for only through the study of Torah and every Jew is obligated to set aside times for Torah study does one merit children, health and sustenance.

In summary: At Sinai, we were cleansed of our “grime” and attained the level of tzaddikim, meriting and being capable of receiving the revelation of G‑d’s Essence at Mattan Torah. At that time, the essence of the soul (which transcends the individual soul powers) shone within every Jew. The second set of Tablets were received on Yom Kippur, through teshuvah. Simchas Torah therefore comes after Shemini Atzeres, because a) it reflects the joy that comes after a separation, and b) it is permeated with the blessings of a good and sweet year, which Jews are able to receive only through actual Torah study.