Something Is Out Of Order Here

There’s definitely a neat, intuitive order to the Jewish festivals. All except for one. One enigmatic festival that seems way out of place.

Here’s the story: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not really festivals, and at any rate, we understand what they’re doing there: a new year is starting. There are three festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. But not really, because there are actually three and a half—if you count Shemini Atzeret (which is also Simchat Torah—we’ll get to that).

But do we count it as its own festival? That’s the problem—and the paradox. On the one hand, it’s just the eighth day of Sukkot, which is why it’s called Shemini, which means “eighth.” But on the other hand, it’s a great big festival all of its own, with its own meaning, its own name and its own rituals. So great and so big that it’s a Jewish custom to celebrate on this festival more than any other festival.

To foncuze1 matters further, we also celebrate Simchat Torah on this day—outside of Israel, on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, and in Israel—well, in Israel, there is only one day. Simchat Torah is the day when we complete the annual cycle of Torah readings and start it up again right from “In the beginning . . .” We take out the Torah scrolls and dance with them—which is pretty strange in itself.How many cultures do you know of where they dance with a book? But what does that have to do with the holiday of Sukkot, or the still enigmatic Shemini Atzeret? Celebrating the Torah seems to fit more to Shavuot, the day we received the Torah. And at any rate, how many cultures do you know of where they dance with a book?

One explanation for this out-of-place festival is that it is really a continuation of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, after all, was the day that Moses came back down from the mountain with the second set of tablets. The first tablets had suffered a catastrophic ending due to divine wrath. Here was Moses with these tablets recording instructions heard by all not to worship idols, and there they were dancing about a golden calf. So he smashed them. Now, after another eighty days and a new set of tablets, the people saw and heard that G‑d had forgiven them.

So on Shemini Atzeret we celebrate receiving those second tablets. But why then? Why not immediately after Yom Kippur? Why does Sukkot have to come in between?

And again, which day are you going to celebrate the Torah—the original lightning-and-thunder, voice-of-G‑d, awe-and-wonder day it was given, or the day the replacement tablets arrived?

Farming the Land

Everything starts coming together once we look beneath the surface. We need to get a better sense of the sequence of the festivals. A deeper, richer sense.The sequence of festivals comes together only once we look beneath the surface.

If you’re a farmer in the land of Israel, the sequence makes perfect sense:

Passover is described in the Torah as a festival “in the month of spring.” It’s a festival, but the Torah doesn’t explicitly tell us to be happy. That makes sense, because spring is when things are springing up. Aside for some animal-feed crops, nothing’s yet ready for harvest, and you don’t yet know what might spring out of this springing up.

Fifty days later comes Shavuot, called by the Torah “the harvest festival.” Now the wheat is being cut and bundled, but still left in the field to be collected. The Torah tells us it’s time to celebrate.

Finally, after a summer of growth and hard work, comes Sukkot, called by the Torah “the ingathering festival.” All the grain has been stored, and the fruits of the trees have been picked as well. And what do you know—the Torah tells us three times to celebrate on Sukkot.

Of course, that’s a localized meaning. The Torah has universal relevance in all places, times and socioeconomic circumstances. So the harvesting theme has a deeper meaning—one that applies to us as well. Or put it like this: The outer harvesting-seasons meaning is really just a reflection of the inner, applicable-under-all-circumstances meaning.

The deeper meaning is that G‑d is the farmer, and Torah and its mitzvahs are His seeds and crops. And we—the Jewish people—are the earth.

Torah, after all, is compared to food—just that it’s metabolized with your mind and heart. Mitzvahs are compared to fruits—the fruits of all that learning and metabolizing. And Jews are called a “land of desire”—because G‑d plants His Torah in our hearts, and watches those mitzvahs grow out of there.

Farming the People

When we left Egypt, we went through three stages in this seeding and sprouting of Torah and mitzvahs, each smack at the right season. The seasons in this world are only a reflection of the seasons above.Because the seasons in this world are only a reflection of the seasons above—which were played out in this physical plane in that year when we left Egypt.

First came Passover, when we left Egypt. Thinking back, it was a pretty wild thing to do—just walk out of Egypt into the desert, trusting G‑d and His servant Moses that everything would be okay. G‑d looks at that and says, “I see something sprouting here!” But just sprouting. The ground is fertile, there’s a people ready to go here—but they haven’t yet been told exactly what’s wanted of them.

So Passover is all about simple faith. Which is a good thing to have, because G‑d is the ultimate in simple oneness, and only simple faith can get in touch with that. But it’s also very precarious. As the Talmud says, a thief also has faith in G‑d. When he’s about to perform a b&e, he prays that G‑d should help him. Faith provides fertile soil—but you can’t be sure what might grow from it.

So then comes Shavuot—G‑d’s first harvest. That’s when we stand at Mount Sinai and shout with enthusiasm, “Yes! We will do all Your mitzvahs! We will learn all Your Torah! We want to be Your people!”

Really exciting. That faithful earth is yielding its bounty. But it’s still out in the field, yet to come home.

That’s the Sukkot stage. Sukkot is all about doing. We absorbed the rules, we sprouted them into fruitful action, and now we’re sitting inside a Torah-designed hut in which (almost) anything we do is a mitzvah. G‑d says, “Break out the champagne! The harvest is in!”

Just one problem: It didn’t happen that way. That bountiful field, with all its sheaves, went up in smoke. So the whole thing doesn’t work.We got the Torah, then we messed up. Big time. The golden calf affair, remember? G‑d said, “I am the L‑rd, your G‑d . . . ,” and we went ahead and made another god. Those tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments were smashed to powder, along with the faith we showed when we left Egypt. That bountiful field, with all its sheaves, just went up in smoke.

So the whole thing doesn’t work.

The real world didn’t line up with the ideal world. It worked like things usually work down here. It’s a world where people mess up. And the order of the holidays doesn’t fit into this world either.

Unless you look yet one stratum deeper: Instead of seeing this as just an idealized harvest sequence, look at it as a relationship forming. It’s not just a matter of us absorbing Torah and popping back fruits. It’s about fusing and bonding with Torah, and thereby with the Giver of the Torah.

Amazing at it may seem, that’s something our world can achieve in a way that no ideal world would be able to. Not just despite our failures, but because of our failures. Here’s how it works:

The Ultimate Bond

How do you know that two have become one? How do you know that two have become one? Rip them apart.They can act like one, talk like one, even think like one. But you don’t really know until you’ve tried ripping them apart. If they’re really one, no matter how traumatic was the falling apart, eventually they’ll just have to pop back together again. And even as they are apart, inside they remain one.

That’s what happened with that golden calf affair. We cut ourselves off from our G‑d and from everything we had agreed and accepted. But we discovered we couldn’t stay apart. And G‑d, too, could never divorce His people. So on Yom Kippur, we were reunited as one.

The same occurs with every Jew who returns to her or his roots. When Maimonides wants to explain why one who has stumbled, fallen into the muck and mire, picked himself up and returned is dearer to G‑d than the most innocent, purest soul, he writes, “Because he has tasted the taste of sin, and parted from it.”

In other words, it’s not just that he’s struggling harder to control himself. For harder work, he certainly gets a great raise and promotion. But there’s more. The bond of the pure and innocent is never certain. What if they would be tempted? What if this soul, too, would stumble?

But the one who has “tasted sin and parted from it”—that soul shows the most resilient of bonds. Ironically, through failure, G‑d achieves His greatest success.

So if we think of the festivals following a sequence of fusion in perfect marriage, Shemini Atzeret is the ultimate stage of that bonding. Atzeret, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria taught, means “absorption.” Shemini Atzeret is total absorption day. It is the day when all the energy and light of all the preceding holy days becomes totally absorbed within the Jew. It’s the day we celebrate our entirely supra-rational, inextricable, nuclear-fusion bond with one another, with Torah and with G‑d. Such a bond that we don’t even have to look inside the scroll to affirm that we like—or understand—a thing it says. It belongs to us and we belong to it. We pick it up, kiss it, and dance like crazy.

The Inheritance

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic work Shnei Luchot Habrit (Shaloh), writes that there is an allusion to every festival and to the happenings of every time of year in the Parshah we read at that time. At the time of Shemini Atzeret (and Simchat Torah), we read the last Parshah of the Torah. And there’s one line there that sums up the very essence of the day. A very famous line, one that we often sing on Simchat Torah: “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the community of Jacob.”

What’s the point of that? Rashi, the classic commentator, writes cryptic words: “We will hold it tight and we will not abandon it.”

Well, that’s one way of translating those words. But it’s deeper than that. It has to be, because what does holding tight have to do with an inheritance?

But the word for holding, just as in English, can also mean a real-estate property holding. Except that in biblical law, every citizen was landed—and the land and the citizen could not be disconnected. Even if you sold your property, in the Jubilee year—once in fifty years—it would come back to you. If not to you, then to your children or grandchildren, or whoever stood as your heir.

Rashi is saying that Torah is that kind of an inheritance. Even if your parents—and their parents as well—were for whatever reason torn away from Torah, you still inherit it, the entire estate with all its keys.

And really, it never left. Torah is the kind of inheritance that can never be disowned. Because we are one.As Rashi continues, “we will not abandon it.” Beneath the surface, the bond was always there.

It has to be. Because we are one. One with Torah, one with the Giver of the Torah, and one with one another. Forever.

Now let’s sing and dance.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot, volume 29, Parshat Berachah/Simchat Torah.