Simchat Torah is the second day of Shmini Atzeret. Indeed, in Israel the two are celebrated on the same day. In some Sefardic and Chassidic communities, the themes are also merged to a certain degree. For example, some shuls do hakafoton the night of Shmini Atzeret and on Simchat Torah. This may come as no surprise as there is certainly room for further definition of Shmini Atzeret.
The Torah makes a clear distinction between Shmini Atzeret and Sukkot – there is no lulav or sukkah – but it does not tell us anything about its historical or theological significance. All it tells us is, “On the eighth day, you shall have an ‘atzeret,'” but what does this atzeret, or gathering, mean? The Targum Yonatan translates it as “an ingathering from the sukkah into the house.” According to him, the nature of Shmini Atzeret is the leaving of the sukkah and the entering of the house. This is supported by the Mishna in Sukkah which states that one must start moving from the sukkah into the house on Hoshana Rabbah, just before the night of Shmini Atzeret. But why should we have a yom tov dedicated to moving out of the sukkah?
By this definition, Shmini Atzeret is a yom tov of transition. It tells us that we need to take time to focus on moving from one experience to another. We cannot simply leave one meaningful experience and abruptly put ourselves in another context. We must pause and be thoughtful about the critical moment of transition.
Sukkot concludes a profound period, one that begins in Elul and intensifies through Tishrei. By the end of Sukkot, we have gone through weeks of self-reflection, prayer, teshuva, and drawing closer to God. Our time living in the sukkah has reminded us of God’s palpable protection in the wilderness, when we only had a flimsy hut for shelter. And we have realized that, even in our firm and stable homes, we only succeed in this world only because of God’s help and God’s protection …
… And then it is time to move back into our homes. Will we take these messages with us, or will we soon get used to our comfortable routine and lose our sensitivity to God’s presence? How will we ensure that the experiences of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are not quickly forgotten when the realities of day-to-day living take over? To ask ourselves this question – the first step in answering it – we need to focus on the moment of transition. We need the yom tov of Shmini Atzeret to make us realize that we are in a critical moment, and at this moment we must think seriously about how we can bring the lessons of the sukkah back with us into the house.
But what is the answer? How will we be successful in this transition? The answer is in the transition of Shmini Atzeret into Simchat Torah. What will keep us sensitive to God’s presence as we enter the new year? The learning of Torah. And not just the learning of Torah, the joy of the Torah. The joy of connecting to the word of God through the learning of God’s Torah. It is astounding how many psukim in Tanakh describe the joy of learning Torah: “How I love Your Torah, all the day it is my delight.” Observance of halakha is the bedrock of our commitment, but if that is all that we have we can lose connection to the sense of God’s presence, to the meaning of it all. Through the learning of Torah and the joy inherent in it, we can not only deepen our understanding of Torah and our commitment to religious life, but we can cultivate, sustain, and heighten our experienced connection to the Ribbono Shel Olam. It is through the simcha of the Torah that we can bring the lessons of the Yamim Noraim and Sukkot into the rest of the year.
As we begin again the reading of the Torah with Parashat Bereshit, let us all commit anew to increasing our learning of Torah this coming year. And let us devote ourselves to a learning of Torah that resonates with us, that connects us to the simchat Torah, so that we can continue to feel God’s presence in our lives throughout the year.