By Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn
Chabad of Centrepointe
Well, my legs are certainly feeling sore. It is not because I ran a marathon. Rather, I write this article one day after Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah, we dance and dance and dance with the Torah. We celebrate the completion of another cycle of reading the entire Torah.
What you may not be aware of is that the completion of the Torah coincides with the biblical festival of Shemini Atzeret. In other words, our sages selected this biblical holiday to celebrate the annual completion of the Five Books of Moses.
So, what is Shemini Atzeret? Why did the Torah command us to add an independent holiday called Shemini Atzeret at the conclusion of Sukkot?
Ask the average Jew why we celebrate Passover, they will immediately respond that it marks the exodus from Egypt. Ask them how about Shavuot, without a second’s hesitation they will tell you it is the day the Jewish nation received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Or ask why we observe Sukkot and you will likely hear that it acknowledges the protection God provided the people of Israel when they were traversing the desert. And so on and so forth.
But inquire about the reason behind Shemini Atzeret and you will almost certainly receive nothing more than a blank stare.
In fact, the Bible itself offers no clue as to what Shemini Atzeret is about.
In his commentary to the book of Leviticus, Rashi uses an analogy to offer the following beautiful explanation:
[God says to Israel,] “I have detained you [to remain] with Me.” This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: “My sons! Please, stay with me just one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!”
Rashi is telling us that after the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, when we connect to God by attending synagogue, by eating in a sukkah and by shaking the four species, God begs us not to leave just yet. He implores us to stay one more day. It is difficult for him to part with us, and us with him.
In other words, Shemini Atzeret transcends reason. We are not marking this day because God did something for us. Rather we mark it because of our collective and individual identity as a child of God. We celebrate our inherent union with God almighty.
It is no accident that we recite Yizkor, a memorial prayer for our departed loved ones, on Shemini Atzeret. We do not miss and reflect on the lives of our loved ones because of what they have done for us, rather we focus on our internal bond that transcends logic.
I would suggest that the ultimate reason for our great joy on this Holiday is because we know that God loves us and cares about us because we are one with him.
And if that is not enough reason to dance, I don’t know what is.