October 6, 2023
Tonight we’ll celebrate the completion of both the cycle of fall holidays and the cycle of Torah readings. This evening begins the dual holy day of Simchat Torah/Shemini Atzeret; Simchat Torah meaning “Joy of Torah,” and Shemini Atzeret meaning “Eighth Day of Assembly.” These holy days are observed as one day both in Reform Jewish communities and in Israel, and as two separate days in traditional Diaspora communities. Ancient rabbis understood Shemini Atzeret to be a sort of “after-party” for Sukkot, as if the divine presence wanted to continue to dwell with the Jewish people in their Sukkot, their fragile huts full of joy and feasting. Because Sukkot, as all of the chagim (festivals) in the Jewish calendar, has both an agricultural and a historical dimension, there is a significant shift at the end of the holiday to align us with the agricultural calendar (that of the land of Israel). On Shemini Atzeret, we begin to pray for rain.
On Sukkot, we acknowledge our profound gratitude for the cycles of seasons, of rain in just the right balance, leading to a bountiful harvest. We acknowledge that we are utterly dependent on the natural world. At the conclusion of this festival of harvest and gratitude, we immediately begin again to refer to God, in the second blessing of the Amidah, as the one who “Mashiv haruach u’morid ha’geshem” – the “One who makes the wind blow and the rains fall.” This is a shift from the blessing we say during the other half of the year, referring to God “Who brings down the dew.”
During the entire cycle of the fall holidays, beginning with the month of Elul which leads into the new year and provides time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, introspection, literally: “accounting of the soul,” and then the time of repentance and renewal of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are in touch with the dual truths of our power and our vulnerability. We are dependent on the natural world, there is much that is outside of our control, and yet we have the power to make choices that affirm and perpetuate life, our most sacred value. Observing Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in one day is such a beautiful representation of this duality.
On Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the gift of wisdom and guidance, our precious inheritance handed down despite exile and incredible challenges, through millennia. We rejoice in Torah and affirm that its values transcend time and space and that it is our sacred obligation to encounter it again and again, each year with new perspectives and questions. Ultimately, grounding ourselves in Torah and the values it represents means that we are “choosing life,” and that we are using our power as individuals and communities to manifest the sanctity of life in this world. All of this comes exactly when we are also acknowledging that we are dependent and vulnerable, that we are part of something so much larger than ourselves, that we cannot control everything; we need just the right balance in the cycle of seasons to have a bountiful harvest. Of course, this truth has new meaning as we confront climate catastrophe and see that in fact, our actions can and do lead to disruptions in the natural cycles, so while we inhabit the space of fragility and dependence on a force beyond ourselves which makes the rain fall and the winds blow, we also must acknowledge that we need to partner with nature, with the divine, to achieve the right balance.
The pure joy of Simchat Torah holds within it, like all Jewish simchas (celebrations, joyous moments), the understanding of the fragility of life, the contingent nature of our existence and our dependence on one another and the Source of Life which transcends us and binds us together. As we dance together with our Torah scrolls in our Sanctuary and out on the sidewalk tonight, we will be singing “Am Yisrael Chai!” – the People of Israel Lives! And I will be brought to tears, as I always am on Simchat Torah, by our people’s insistence on life in the face of our vulnerability. May we bring balance to the seasons and to the world so that countless generations to come will hold and protect the value of life, and the life-giving wisdom of Torah.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman