August 23, 2019 |

Oh How I Miss the Holidays!

Shemini Atzeret, 5771

Often I have an experience in my week that goes something like this.My two year old asks me for a lollipop.He will ask me for what feels like several hundred times until I will finally relent and say, “fine.”Then the second I give him the lollipop, he will look at me with a devilish smile and say, “I want two lollipops.”One time I made the mistake of giving him two lollipops and he immediately said, “I want three.”

No matter what you give the two-year old he is never satisfied.He always wants more.I can’t blame him because that’s the nature of a two year old.

But how much different are we grown-ups?Whenever we get something, we want more and more and more.It is never enough.

We need to learn to be satisfied in life without the lollipop.We need to find satisfaction in the spiritual.

But even as it relates to the spiritual, we are always seeking more and more.We are never satisfied.This is one reason why in many communities there is what is known as a netiah lechumra, a tendency towards stringency.People are always seeking more and more mitzvoth and supererogatory behavior because they feel like they have not achieved their goal.We feel incomplete and so we seek more, even and especially, in the realm of the spiritual.

There is a verse from the book of Kohelet which states, “Ohev kesef lo yisbah kesef, one who loves money will never be satisfied with money.”But a teacher of mine, Rabbi Elchanan Adler, who is now a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, once quoted a teaching of our rabbis that states: “ohev mitzvoth lo yisbeh mitzvoth, one who loves mitzvoth will never be satisfied with the mitzvoth that he has performed.”He will always seek to do more in service of God and to look for more ways to please Him.This desire will arise from a feeling of inadequacy and distance from Hashem.Even in the realm of the spiritual we will always feel incomplete.

This is what the holiday of Shemini Atzeret speaks about.Let me explain what I mean by first looking at two fundamental questions about Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret is a very strange holiday as it is bereft of any unique mitzvah or custom.It follows on the heels of our cycle of holidays which have such a rich, plethora of mitzvoth.Rosh Hashanah has the majestic shofar and the sweetness of the honey, Yom Kippur has the purity of fasting and the cleansing of wearing white garments, Sukkot has frailty of the temporary Sukkah and the mystical nature of the Four Species (Daled Minim), and even Chol Hamoed has the powerful Hoshannah Rabbah with the aravah--the willows that we beat into the ground.And immediately following Shemini Atzeret we have Simchat Torah which with its endless rejoicing over the Torah is one of the most unique of all our holidays.So sandwiched in between all of these holidays is Shemini Atzeret, a holiday which seems to lack identity and a unique custom or ritual.Why is that?

A second fundamental question:

Sukkot is the holiday of joy.We celebrate Sukkot, beaspekhah migarnekha umiyikvechahsimcha (joy) once, but about Sukkot it says it twice, vesamachtah bechagecha, you shall rejoice on your holiday (v. 14); vehayyitah akh sameach and you should only be happy (v. 15). (Deuteronomy 16:13), when we lovingly and joyously gather in our crops from the field.About the other holidays mentioned in Deuteronomy, it mentions

Our rabbis understand this to mean that there is a special mitzvah to be extra happy on the holiday of Sukkot.In this spirit, I remember as a boy that we rarely had liquor or alcohol around house, but on Sukkot we would bring beer into the sukkah, because it is an extra mitzvah to be happy on Sukkot.On Sukkot there is a custom to throw Sukkah parties that recall the amazing party in the Beit Hamikdash known as the Simchat Beit Hashoevah.And Shemini Atzeret is followed by Simchat Torah, which is a post biblical holiday that is an entire day of pure rejoicing.

So it is a season of joy.But in between these two joyous holidays is Shemini Atzeret; a day of muted joy; a day with the cries of Yizkor; a day where we pray for rain using the solemn tunes of Yom Kippur.What is that about?

Both of these questions point to the sui generis nature of Shemini Atzeret.It is about the recognition of what Kohelet says “ohev kesef lo yisbah kesef, one who loves money will never be satisfied with money” -- true happiness is contained within ourselves.To be truly happy, a person must find happiness without all the toys which we bring into our life to get us through the day.So too, the mitzvoth; even though they are a gift from Hashem to help us achieve happiness, they are not the final step of spiritual bliss.The final step is to be able to get to the highest level of happiness before Hashem without clinging to additional mitzvoth.

Shemini Atzeret is the model for how we can live the rest of the year once the holidays are over; it teaches us how we can bring the spirit of the holidays into our daily lives.

As we step away from the holiday season and return to our daily lives we begin to feel bereft.Where are all our additional mitzvoth? What are we going to do without the Shofar for an entire year?Oh how I already miss saying a blessing on the daled minim and how I dread saying goodbye to the Sukkah!I want to take these mitzvoth with me!I need them.

But the teaching of Shemini Atzeret is that we have gained so much from the mitzvoth and the chagim that we now know how to achieve happiness even without turning everyday into a chag.By using the spiritual growth that we have gained from the holidays, we can achieve this elevated spiritual level on a daily basis in our regular lives even without the additional rituals of the holidays.

If we cling to the regular observance and teachings of the Torah then we won’t need a daily supercharged lift from the holidays.

This idea is also the very last teaching that Moshe Rabbeinu ever taught in the Torah.

Here in the Diaspora we celebrate Shemini Atzeret as one day and Simchat Torah as the second day.Of course, in the land of Israel it is all combined into one day.So in Israel the Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret is the last portion of the Torah known as Vezot Haberacha, which in the Diaspora is read on Simchat Torah.

Vezot Haberacha translates as “this is the blessing;”i.e. this is the final blessing that Moshe gave to the children of Israel before he died.

With his final breaths he calls everyone together and tells them that Hashem loves us so much that he has given us something which we can carry with us at all times.Moshe says (33:3-4):“Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morasha kehillat Yaakov.Moses commanded the Torah to us, an eternal heritage for the congregation of Jacob.”

He then proceeds to bless all the tribes and then he concludes--and these are the very last words Moshe speaks in his life—with the following phrase (33:28-29): “Israel shall thus dwell securely, alone in a land of grain and wine, just like Jacob. Your heavens shall drip with dew. Ashrekhah yisrael mi kamokha am nosha Ba-shem.Happy are you Israel! Who is like you? [You are] a nation delivered by God, the Shield who helps you….”

The meaning of this is that we will be fortunate and happy when we are secure with the Torah.All we need to be happy is to cling to the Torah and then even just a little grain, rain, and wine will suffice.

So we have seen that Shemini Atzeret is a model for how we can live our lives throughout the whole year even without all the extra mitzvoth of the holidays.All we need to do is to cling to the Torah and we will have enough.

This is the secret of why Moshe doesn’t enter into the land of Israel.

Right after these words appear in the Torah, Moshe ascends the mountain and looks at the land of Canaan and God tells him, “shamah lo taavor,” you will not cross over the Jordan.You will not make it to Canaan.

But now we know why Moshe doesn’t go into the land of Israel.Earlier in the Torah we were told that Moshe doesn’t go in because he is punished for hitting a rock in order to draw out water.But now the Torah simply says he is not crossing the Jordan River and it no longer explicitly states that he is being punished.

You know why he doesn’t he go in to Israel now?He no longer needs to.As he dies Moshe, understands that the essence of Hashem and Torah can get him to where he needs to go even if he is missing out on the mitzvah of crossing the Jordan into the land of Canaan.Don’t misunderstand: the rest of us desperately need the land of Israel and the 613 mitzvoth, but by this time in his life Moshe had achieved the highest level of spirituality even without the land.He didn’t need the land in order to ascend to Hashem.

He had internalized the mitzvoth to such a degree that he was high enough to return to Hashem.

Do you want proof that Moshe was no longer being punished by dying before going into Israel?

On Shemini Atzeret we have a custom to say the prayer for rain known as Tefillat Geshem.In this prayer we cry out to Hashem:“Remember Moshe who was drawn forth in a basket from the water…When your treasured people thirsted for water, he hit the rock and out came water. Betzidko, in his righteous grant us water.”

In this prayer we don’t imagine that Moshe is being punished for hitting the rock.Just the opposite, we are praising him.He was righteous even as he died.

Now we see that when Moshe hit the rock he was teaching us a fundamental lesson that would carry on after his death.Moshe taught us how to get water from a rock.Water is life and a rock in its simplicity is the Torah.By dying before he entered into the land of Israel, Moshe taught us how to get life from the Torah.

Let us think of the holidays as a ledge that we can hold on to.The whole year we are in a raging sea of tsunamis and earthquakes. Our lives beat us up and down and toss us all around.But then comes the yamim noraim and we grasp a hold of these ledges to help us survive.

But then the ledge leaves, so what are we to do?That’s the lesson of shemini atzeret: we can survive even without the ledge, even without the extra mitzvoth, because the whole year we have the Torah.The Torah is our ledge and will be our protector and we cling to the Torah knowing that we will be happy and secure no matter what the year might bring.

Missing

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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