Parashat Hashavua for Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 

Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW

The other night, enjoying a rare night out with my wife Rachel, we came to the inevitable point of decision at the meal; to dessert or not dessert? The meal had been fantastic, with an overwhelming array of appetizers, cocktails to match each course, and of course wine with the mains. At that point, really, dessert seemed like an indulgence. However, we so rarely got the opportunity to enjoy a night out with some friends, we decided to take the opportunity to stay a bit longer and enjoy the dessert and the wonderful company. Even though it made the night longer, we had no regrets. Quite the opposite, it added the extra little bit to make the night truly special.

In the next few days, we will be coming to the end of the High Holiday Season with the Festivals of Shemini Azteret and Simchat Torah. 

The first, Shemini Azteret, is a unique holiday in our calendar in that it has no unique or specific rituals associated with it, except for it being a day of rest. It is not technically part of Sukkot, but its own stand-alone Festival, as the Torah relates in Numbers 29:35: “On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations.”

The rabbis puzzle over why, after having just concluded one of the most important holidays in our calendar, Sukkot, do we then have another festival immediately after. It seems a bit of an indulgence, to have an extra festival after an already long festival, coming not long after two other festivals (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). The word Atzeret, variously translated as "pause", "stop", or more poetically as "solemn", offers us a clue. Rashi, the famous medieval commentator offers his opinion:

Restrict (atzeret) yourselves from leaving Jerusalem: this teaches that this (the eighth day) requires that they should remain in Jerusalem overnight (that the pilgrims should not immediately at the termination of the seventh day begin their homeward journey) (Sifrei Bamidbar 151:1). And an explanation of it in the Agada is: because on all the seven days of the Festival [Sukkot] they offered sacrifices corresponding in number to the 70 nations of the world, and they propose then to set forth on their way home, the Omnipresent says to them: ‘I beg of you make a small banquet for Me, so that I may have some pleasure from you exclusively” (Sukkah 55b).

These beautiful explanations offer us a clue as to why this festival exists when I’m sure there are more than a few of us who are looking to get back to our normal lives without a festival every week. Our ancestors, having made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot, having spent a week with a strict schedule of offerings and prayers, are being asked by God to remain and allow God to enjoy the company, for one more day, before all the pilgrims make their journeys back home and return to their normal lives. In a way, it’s the dessert of our festival High Holiday, not something we need, but something that will certainly add to the experience of our High Holiday season.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.

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