Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are the climax of yamim tovim. As we explained last week, although we are obligated to rejoice on all three Shalosh Regalim, the joy is greatest on Sukkos, which is the only yom tov called “z’man simchaseinu – the time of our rejoicing.” Yet, even the joy of Sukkos doesn’t approach the exuberant joy of the final days of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.
It seems puzzling, therefore, that Shemini Atzeres has no special mitzvah or even Torah-specified theme associated with it. Pesach has matzah, Rosh Hashanah has shofar, but Shemini Atzeres seems to have nothing. As its name implies, Shemini Atzeres is the “eighth” day of the yom tov, yet none of the special mitzvos of Sukkos – dwelling in a sukkah, shaking lulav, etc. – apply on that day either.
Our Sages explain the theme of Shemini Atzeres with the analogy of a king who invites his children to a feast lasting several days. When the feast is over and the time arrives for everyone to leave, he asks them to please remain for one more day, saying, “Your separation is difficult for me.” Hashem is the king of this analogy. After seven days of Sukkos, He says to us, “Stay with Me for one more day.”
But why does the king (i.e., Hashem) say, “Your separation is difficult for me?” Surely he should say, “Our separation is difficult.” And what’s the point of asking his children to stay just one more day after which they will leave anyway? (The Midrash implies that staying an extra day somehow will affect future days too.)
The Rebbe answered these questions by explaining that there can be no real separation between Hashem and His people – certainly not from His point of view, but even from our point of view. As the Alter Rebbe would say, “A Jew neither desires nor is capable of being separated from the Divine.”
If Jews happen to act in ways that separate them from Hashem, it’s because of “your separation” – i.e., divisiveness between them and other Jews. The Mitteler Rebbe said about one Jew helping another: it is “two Divine souls [teaming up] against a single animal soul.” How much more so, then, when all Jews stand together to “become a single group for the purpose of fulfilling G-d’s will with a perfect heart.” Separation of Jews from Hashem occurs only when Jewish unity is imperfect.
That’s why Hashem says, “Your separation,” and that’s why Hashem begs us to remain together for one more day. He wants to ensure that we avoid divisiveness and preserve our unity (on that day and for the future). That’s also why the Torah specifies no special mitzvos for this day. It requires only rejoicing expressed in festive eating and drinking in order to minimize all differences between us – even Torah-recognized differences such as one’s level of Torah knowledge or diligence in observing mitzvos – thereby emphasizing the unity of all Jews.
Although the Torah itself specifies no special mitzvos or theme for Shemini Atzeres, though, it has become a universal Jewish custom to finish the year-round public reading of the Torah on this day (in the Holy Land – in the Diaspora, we do so on Simchas Torah, which is essentially the “second” day of Shemini Atzeres). We then begin a new cycle of Torah reading from the beginning.
We express our Jewish unity on this day by what unites us – the joy of having the Torah given uniquely to us, which is felt by all Jews. And we express this joy primarily, not by studying Torah, for that could reveal great differences between various Jews. Instead, we embrace the sifrei Torah, which remain closed, and dance with them, using our feet, the body’s lowest limbs, where all are equal. These simple acts enable our joy and unity to continue through the year.
We wish all our readers, among the entire Jewish people, a truly happy Yom Tov.
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)