Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
The commentaries address the question of why the Rabbis chose to finish the Torah and celebrate Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret and not on Shavuot, the day when we received the Torah. They explain that when the Jewish People accepted the Torah without first going through it, they were unable to truly appreciate the depth of this gift when they received it on Shavuot. Only once they finished going through the Torah did they really come to the realization of the special present they received on Shavuot. Therefore, the Rabbis chose to finish the Torah on a different day than Shavuot, to mirror the experiences that the Jewish People had when they received the Torah (see the Ben Ish Chai’s Yedei Chaim, siman 669).
This idea, though, addresses only why Simchat Torah is not celebrated on Shavuot, but it fails to answer why the Rabbis specifically chose to finish the Torah and celebrate the siyum on Shemini Atzeret (or the second day of that Chag outside of Israel). Furthermore, in light of the halacha that one shouldn’t mix two different celebrations together, why did the Rabbis choose to make Simchat Torah exactly on the same day as Shemini Atzeret?
One More Day…
Commenting on the verse that refers to Shemini Atzeret as “Atzeret,” literally translated as stopping, Rashi explains:
Like a king who invited his sons to a meal, when it came time for them to go, the king said, “My sons! I beg of you stay with me one more day, it is hard to be separated from you!” ( Rashi on Vayikra 23:36; see also Rashi on Bamidbar 29:35)
The commentaries ask a basic question on this: How would staying another day ease the parting from one another? Wouldn’t it just simply delay the hardship of having to part? Or, in fact, wouldn’t it even make it harder, following another day of close bonding?
The commentaries explain that through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Succot, we come closer and closer to Hashem, until reaching a climax of intense closeness on Shemini Atzeret. In fact Sefat Emet points out that the spiritual level that is reached on Shemini Atzeret (and Shavuot) is so high that it cannot be condensed into a physical mitzvah. This is why, unlike other holidays, there is no specific mitzvah that is associated with Shemini Atzeret (other than the offerings brought in the Beit Hamikdash - Sefat Emet, Succot 5637, “v’hayita ach sameach”). In a similar vein, the sources tell us that as a result of the close bond between us and Hashem on Shemini Atzeret, it is the most auspicious time of the year for one’s prayers to be accepted (see Moed l’Kol Chai 25:1 and Ben Yehoyada on Mo’ed Katan 9a’ based on the Zohar, Tzav 32a).
Practically speaking, the work that is demanded from us on Shemini Atzeret is to feel the closeness with Hashem that we developed from all these special days that have just passed, and try to extend that closeness to the mundane days that follow. That is why this day is called “Atzeret” (stopping). On this day, one is meant to stop the influences of the 21 days prior from going away, by absorbing the lessons learned and spiritual heights achieved (Shem M’Shmuel, Shemini Atzeret).
The only way for this to happen is through the Torah. This is because through the Torah, which is above time and above physicality, even without auspicious times, such as the holidays, and without the means of timely mitzvahs such as shofar and succah, one can still connect to Hashem in a very intense way. It is therefore only through the Torah that we can transfer over the closeness we feel to Hashem on Shemini Atzeret to the mundane days that follow. According to this, it is no surprise that the Zohar, which preceded the custom of finishing the Torah on Shemini Atzeret, says to rejoice with the Torah on this day. Even prior to this day being a time when we celebrate the finishing of the Torah, there was an intrinsic connection between this day and the Torah.
Now we can understand why the extra day of Shemini Atzeret actually eases the departure. On this day we prepare and carry with ourselves the influences of the Yamim Noraim and Succot through rejoicing with the Torah. On the day when we reach the climax of spiritual connection to Hashem, we rejoice with the Torah to instill in ourselves the principle that through the Torah we can reach similar heights even after the auspicious holidays. Now we can also understand why the Rabbis chose to institute the finishing of the Torah specifically on Shemini Atzeret. The rejoicing with the Torah, which helps us retain our intense closeness with Hashem even after the Yamim Noraim and Succot, fits the theme of Shemini Atzeret perfectly. It is also clear now why the Rabbis did not worry about the halacha of not mixing two different celebrations by instituting Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret. Since the Torah is an intrinsic part of Shemini Atzeret, it is not considered the mixing of two different celebrations, but rather one big celebration (based primarily on Moadim Uzmanim VI siman 79 and Siftei Chaim, Moadim I, pp. 345-346).
May we all merit making the most of this auspicious day and carry the closeness to Hashem that we achieved during the High Holidays into the mundane days that follow.