After the solemnity and awe of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the first season of happy holidays are finally approaching. As we greet Sukkot’s arrival on the 15th day of 5775, we also greet each other with the words chag same’ach (“Happy festival”)! Although we will not hold services on Sukkot proper, we will gather for two special days that mark the border where Sukkot ends.
The first day of Yom Tov (literally, “Good Day,” meaning festival) is Shemini Atzeret. One of the classic explanations of the purpose of Shemini Atzeret goes like this: All of Sukkot had been like a big feast for God—a 7-day party where we kept dining in the royal Divine court. At the end of this party, the Host of Hosts says to us guests, “I’d love if you can stay a little longer—just one more small bite.” Shemini Atzeret is the small nosh we have, so we can still eat sacred fruits in the company of the Eternal Sovereign (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55b).
Moreover, because Judaism is a religion that sanctifies the 7-day week, when we can extend whatever happens on the 7th day into the 8th day, we undergo something supernatural. We bend time. We drag the joy of one day into the emptiness of another. This fusion of two days must be what leads Rabbi Isaac Me’ir of Gur (1799-1866) to teach, “The notion of 8 transcends nature.”
Not only is 8 a special number, but Sukkot nearly becomes a 9-day festival when we add onto it the climactic celebration of our completing the Torah reading for the year: Simchat Torah. One of the customs of Simchat Torah is to dance with the Torah in what we would call a hakkafah (“a circling”). In the days of the Talmud, it was a custom of our people to do a special ritual when they purchased new land. They would take a walk around the new property, and, by walking the borders of their new possession, a piece of the Earth would become their own. We declare our ownership and responsibility of the Torah when we dance in circles with the Torah, teaches Rabbi Isaac Me’ir. We might have finished reading the Torah for one year, but our lease is far from up. We’re renewing our contract.
Taken from another angle, Rabbi Isaac Me’ir transmits the words of the Kotzker Rebbe: Sukkot is a time of great festivity. What do we do with our surplus of happiness? We take our joy and place it in our Torah (Chiddushey HaRim, Sukkot). The Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching is not about how to be happy, but what to do with our happiness.
Let’s come together this Shemini Atzeret and make a little more time just to be together. Let’s stay another day and come on Simchat Torah to express our gladness—to impress our Torah, the pride and possession that binds us together as a community. Let us embed within it the joy that motivates us to do good in the world, to bring peace, and to pursue the happiness that helps us transcend the limits of nature.