Shmini Atzeret: Simcha Without the Sukkah?
V'Zot HaBracha (Deuteronomy 33-34 )
We have a difficult problem to address. Sukkot is called "Zman Simchateinu," the Season of our Joy, in the Festival Shemoneh Esrai prayers. This is based on the verses in Vayikra 23:40-43, that describe Sukkot as deriving its joy from the Mitzvah observances of the Four Species, and the Mitzvah of living in the Sukkah itself.
What is hard to comprehend is why Shemini Atzeret is also called Zman Simchateinu. Shemini Atzeret lacks all of the joyful observances which belong to Sukkot. If the Torah tells us to be happy on Sukkot as a result of its special Mitzvos, how are we to gladden ourselves on Shemini Atzeret, bereft of the same observances? How is it possible to achieve joy without the same vehicles of the Season of Joy utilized on Sukkot?
Before answering, let us first present another question.
Our Sages tell us that the motive behind the holiday of Shemini Atzeret is because God wanted to spend a special day with us.
"It is called Atzeret (detaining) since I have detained you near me. This is similar to a king who invited his children to a feast for a certain amount of days. When the time came for the children to depart, the king said, "My children! I beg of you, stay with me for one more day. It is so terribly difficult for me to see you go (kasheh alay peridaschem)."(Rashi, Vayikra 23:36)
After we have rejoiced with God for 7 days during Sukkot, and we have brought 70 sacrifices which correspond to the 70 nations, God desires for us to devote and sanctify one more day for a festival. He wants one day devoted to His special relationship with us devoid of any connection to the other nations of the world.
Shmini Atzeret seems to have no purpose of its own except to give the Father one more day to spend with His children. It's too difficult for Him to see us leave without our spending one more day with Him.
But why does this difficult departure only occur with the Festival of Sukkot? Why don't we see this same feeling of love for us expressed with other Festivals? Pesach also has seven days of closeness with God. Why doesn't God say the same thing then?
The explanation is as follows. Because Sukkot is known as Zman Simchateinu, the Season of Joy, only Sukkot can evoke a special closeness with God which produces the feeling of, "It is so terribly difficult for me to see you go." We come closer to God on Sukkot - more than on any of the other Festivals because we remind ourselves that it is He who gives us all of the blessings of life. As Vayikra 23:39 states, Sukkot is celebrated when we 'gather in all of our crops of the land.' We take stock of our economic and financial God-given blessings during Sukkot. It is God who gives us what we need to live.
We become secure on Sukkot knowing that even if we lack something, it is only because God, in His Infinite wisdom, doesn't want us to have it. If God didn't grant it to us, we obviously don't need it in order to be happy and enjoy our lives.
This is what we mean when we recite the daily morning blessing, "(I thank God) Who gives me all I need." Others who do have and enjoy the particular blessing that I desire, were given a different personal God-given task and therefore need that item in order to fulfill it. But if I don't have it, I must have a different task in life and do not require any more than what I have already.
So, on Sukkot God says, "You've come so close and you've been able to accept my ways and methods of dealing with you. You've been able to say 'gam zu l'tova' - this (all that God sends us) is for the best, and mean it. You've lived lives of holiness, injecting meaning into all your mundane actions such as eating and sleeping, in the Sukkah. It is hard for me to see all this go. Please, one more day of this beautiful relationship that we are experiencing now."
The Zman Simchateinu, Season of Joy, of Shmini Atzeret - without the Sukkah and Four Species - is one of a simple recognition that God wants to be with us and hold on to the closeness He has with us. We have utilized the Four Species and Sukkah to build this relationship and closeness throughout Sukkot, but on Shemini Atzeret we no longer need any vehicles to be close with God. God desires us for our simple company and existence. On Shemini Atzeret, God desires us for us.
The task after this glorious Festival is to somehow make this connection with God last. The only way we can accomplish this is to bring God into our every day, mundane existence. Eating in order to be healthy to serve God, working at making a living in order to have the means to serve God. Whatever we do should have God in mind.
In order to enable ourselves to accomplish this, we celebrate the custom of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah) on Shemini Atzeret. This custom was established with the goal of holding on to the growth we experienced on Sukkot. On Simchat Torah, we recognize that the only way we can hold on to Sukkot and all of its impact is to celebrate the Torah and make it the central focus of all that we do.
We do not celebrate Simchat Torah by learning the Torah as we do on Shavuot because learning is not enough to accomplish this goal. Rather, we dance and sing with the Torah and in this way we proclaim to ourselves that life is glorious and wondrous because we have the Torah to guide us in every aspect of our lives. By reaffirming our commitment to the Torah, we will be able to retain the closeness with God that we have experienced on Sukkot .
God says "Kasheh alay peridatchem - It is so terribly difficult for me to see you go" and we as a Jewish people have responded with Simchat Torah. We also do not want to leave God and the special relationship we have established. We also desire one more day, one more Festival with God. Through the impact of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah we can hold on to the closeness with God achieved on Sukkot, in all of our actions and thoughts.