A message from Rabbi
Eliezer Ben Yehuda
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Shmini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah




We read in our holy Torah, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy gatherings, these are my feasts. Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, a holy gathering; you shall do no work in it; it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings. These are the feasts of the Lord, holy gatherings, which you shall proclaim in their seasons.” [Lev. 23:1-4] This passage is followed by a list of holidays, beginning with the Night of the Passover and going on to “The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord. On the first day shall be a holy gathering; you shall do no labor in it. Seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord; on the eighth day shall be a holy gathering to you; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn assembly; and you shall do no labor in it. ” [Lev. 23:34-36] It sounds quite clear and simple: the Jews must celebrate a seven day holiday, followed by an eighth day which shall be a special day and a unique holiday called the “Eighth Day Gathering - Shmini Atzeret.” This special day is also mentioned in the list of holidays that is given in the fourth book of the Torah: “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly; you shall do no labor in it; ” [Num. 29:35]

So far, I believe, the facts are quite simple to grasp. But the next text gives us pause, and leaves us searching for some answers. We read “So the people went out, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the open space of the Water Gate, and in the open space of the Gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of those who had returned from captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua, son of Nun, to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was a very great rejoicing. And he read in the book of the Torah of God, day by day, from the first day to the last day, and they celebrated the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance. ” [Nehe. 8:16-18] We tend to believe that our forefathers followed God’s teachings and obeyed the Torah while the Temple stood. So why does Nehemiah tell us that “ since the days of Joshua, son of Nun, to that day the people of Israel had not done so?” Maybe he is speaking of the eighth day, and the manner of observing “ a solemn assembly on the eighth day” was not “ according to the ordinance?”

Well, for one thing, in the days of Nehemiah, and his co-leader of the Jews in Jerusalem in his day, Ezra, the practice of reading the Torah in public was established – we believe for the first time. The cycle of reading the Torah that was established in those days, therefore, was a new and unique manner of celebrating the holiday, creating “Simkhat Torah” and prompting Nehemiah’s comment. In the land of Israel, in antiquity, the eighth day was Shmini Atzeret, and it was Simkhat Torah, too. The Jews living outside of Israel now divide the holiday, making Shmini Atzeret the day of memorializing our martyrs and all our dear relatives who have died, and leaving the rejoicing to the next day, Simkhat Torah, the “Joy of Torah.” There is much to be said in favor of this arrangement.

First, we have a chance to separate the two (contradicting) themes of remembering the dead and celebrating out torah. On Shmini Atzeret we read in the book of Devarim from chapter fourteen, verse 22, to chapter sixteen, verse 17. Our additional reading from the prophets, the Haftarah, deals with the celebration of dedicating God’s Temple, built by Solomon. On Simkhat Torah, when we rejoice in learning our heritage, we read the end of the fifth book and the beginning of the first book. We add the a haftarah from Joshua, the book that follows the Khumash, reading “the continuation of the story after the end of Dvarim.” Moshe is dead, it is time to continue, to enter the land of Canaan and inherit it.

The Torah is called by a number of names. Torah is a partial name, actually, the whole name being “Torat Elohim – the Teaching of God,” or “Torat Moshe – the Teaching of Moses,” or even “Torat Emet – the Teaching of Truth.” It is also called “Khumash – The Five Books,” where “the” is really capital Tee Eich, Ee – THE one and only “Five.” Then there is the name “Hadevarim – The ‘Words’” referring to “the speech of God at Sinai.” The Torah teaches us “Vaydaber Elohim et kol hadvarim ha’ele lemor – And God spoke all these words, saying, Anokhi adona’y elohekha asher hotzetikha me’eretz mitzra’yim mibeyt avadim – I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” [Ex. 20:1,2] Our sages commented that in the “Ten Statements” spoken at Sinai, the entire Torah was transmitted to Israel. Thus, the text “ these words” does not mean the “Ten Statements” – it means Torah!

Still another name for the Torah is “Hashirah – the Song.” The root of this name comes from a verse near the end of the text of the last book of the Khumash: “Ve’ata kitvu lakhem et hashirah hazot velimda et beney yisra’el sima befihem lema’an tihye li hashirah hazot l’ed bivney yisra’el – Now therefore write this Song for you, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this Song may be a witness for me among the people of Israel. ” [Deu.31:19] So the Torah is meant to be chanted, it is a song, a poem that has rhyme and rhythm. Like poetry, it uses metaphors to say in depth that which is not obvious on the surface of its text. Like music, it becomes more powerful and meaningful with repetition and with familiarity. It has harmony which comes from all parts of the text and its reverberation on those that participate in its “performance.” Speech, like a strict black and white “law” is monotonous, while a song is a rainbow of colors, sounds, and reflections. God placed the rainbow in the sky as a sign of His covenant with the sons of Noakh – and he gave Israel the rainbow of his Song, Hashirah, the multi-layered Torah of life, which is also called “Etz Kha’yim” – a Tree of Life for those who hold steadfast to it. All those who support it are filled with joy.



Shmini Atzeret - Simkhat Torah

This Shabbat and on the day that will come after it we shall celebrate the conclusive and final end of the "holiday season" of the month of Tishrei with the Shmini Atzeret - the Eighth Day of Assembly and Simkhat Torah - the Festive Joy of Torah holiday. The first is a time of taking stock of where we are, and the second is a celebration of where we can be, and where we fervently want to go. Shmini Atzeret is a very strange holiday, which is not really properly explained in the Torah or the post Torah literature. I have always felt that it was planned as a "Jewish pride" day - long before the concept became popular. In connection with this Jewish pride, I want to read to you the words spoken by Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University's president.
I speak with you today not as President of the University but as a concerned member of our community about something that I never thought I would become seriously worried about--the issue of anti-Semitism. I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout. In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from my experience. My family all left Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust is for me a matter of history, not personal memory. To be sure, there were country clubs where I grew up that had few if any Jewish members, but not ones that included people I knew. My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government official--all involved little notice of my religion.
Indeed, I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration that the existence of an economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish passed without comment or notice--it was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish President.
Without thinking about it much, I attributed all of this to progress--to an ascendancy of enlightenment and tolerance. A view that prejudice is increasingly put aside. A view that while the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex, and contentious, the question of the right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community. But today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable because there is disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and also because of some developments closer to home. Consider some of the global events of the last year:
There have been synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews, or the painting of swastikas on Jewish memorials in every country in Europe. Observers in many countries have pointed to the worst outbreak of attacks against the Jews since the Second World War. Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of elections for the nation's highest office in France and Denmark. State-sponsored television stations in many nations of the world spew anti-Zionist propaganda. The United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism--while failing to mention human rights abuses in China, Rwanda, or anyplace in the Arab world--spoke of Israel's policies prior to recent struggles under the Barak government as constituting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The NGO declaration at the same conference was even more virulent. I could go on. But I want to bring this closer to home. Of course academic communities should be and always will be places that allow any viewpoint to beexpressed. And certainly there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israel's foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged. But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent. For example: Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli researchers, though not for an end to support for researchers from any other nation. Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature journal.
At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming increasingly common to also lash out at Israel. Indeed, at the anti-IMF rallies last spring, chants were heard equating Hitler and Sharon. Events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance that in some cases were later found to support terrorism have been held by student organizations on this and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism. And some here at Harvard and some at universities across the country have called for the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university's endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the University has categorically rejected this suggestion. We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.
I have always throughout my life been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass, in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler's Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist if not slightly hysterical. But I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago. I would like nothing more than to be wrong. It is my greatest hope and prayer that the idea of a rise of anti-Semitism proves to be a self-denying prophecy--a prediction that carries the seeds of its own falsification. But this depends on all of us.

I think that Mr. Summers hits the nail on the head both in what he says and in what he exemplifies by his personal asides. There is no question that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Just because the halls of academe are full of people born into the Jewish faith - it does not mean that they cannot behave in a manner that is inimical to the majority of Jews. That makes them anti-Semites. Mr. Summers comment "I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout" rubs me the wrong way. I can't help but think, "if only he was more devout, he might serve as a good role model to others." As for his claim that only the Jewish state is held up to an impossible high standard of humane behavior, I fully agree. The final word is not mentioned by Mr. Summers: Israelis, in and out of power, in and out of government - all want peace. Israel's neighbors do not. You can see it in their press, you can see it in their web-pages, you can see it in their eyes. Europe, which sixty years ago hung its head in shame over the fruits of anti-Semitism, is once again celebrating their old habit in the garment of "anti-Israelism" - but we know what is behind those words. "same old, same old."
Well, one thing has changed since the "good old days" - we are no longer passive, we are no longer helpless, and we will not go quietly into any good-night. We will rage, and we will fight, and we will persevere. On that you may be sure. This is not a dream, and it is not a folk tale, it is the sound of the hosts of the Lord, triumphant in battle. The God of Israel has brought the exiles back, and He shall protect them in his Sukkah of Peace. And as He promised Abraham - those who bless us He shall bless - and he that curses us... Well, just read the history books.
"Ken Yovdu kol o'yvekha - So "shall all your enemies perish, O Lord; and those who love Him shall be as the sun when he goes forth with praise of His might." [Judges 5:31]


Shmini Atzeret 5764

We celebrate the end of our "holiday season" of the month of Tishrei with the Eighth day of Assembly and the Festive Joy of Torah holiday. In Israel the two are celebrated on the same day - but outside the Land of Promise, we have an extra day, and so one day is "just" Shmini Atzeret, while the other is strictly Simkhat Torah. The first day is a time of taking stock of where we are, where we have been, and possibly where we are headed. The second is a celebration of where we can be, and where we want to want to go.
Some people think that we are in one of the darkest moments in our four thousand years' history. Judaism has been through so much pain and suffering for two thousand years that we had reached a point of no return around the middle of the last century. Many of our brothers and sisters perished in the holocaust. Quite a number surrendered to the pressure and left Judaism, assimilating into the religions and cultures of their land of domicile – and some chose to recreate their national home and haven in the "promised land" on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
The national renaissance movement began a little more than half a century earlier, in the waning years of the nineteenth century. Young inexperienced idealistic pioneers returned to a land that was desolate and uninhabitable, partly covered by the sands of the African desert carried over in the stream of the sea current coming from the Nile delta and spread by the wind from the sea-shore inland, partly covered by swamps infested with malaria, and partly laid waste by the uprooting of trees and shrubs in the hill country, causing the good soil to we carried off by centuries of rain causing erosion of unprotected and untended terrain.
What prompted them was the new spirit of citizenship and self-respect that emanated from the New World – from the shores of a new "Promised land" – the United States of America. This land, our land, had opened a new chapter in the human experience and enterprise, best exemplified by the words from our "founding document" – the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These concepts are not new to America. In fact, they are based on the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures, which made them so much more cogent for our brethren who initiated the movement to return and reclaim their birthright in their historical homeland, a land that had been neglected and forgotten by man and beast.
The return was not quick, nor was it easy. Jews are not accorded easy passage among the nations of earth, nor will civilizations show them kindness and consideration. Their movement out of lands where they were not welcome was not facilitated – and their settlement in the old homeland was made ever more difficult by hostile governments and populations. Even while their "right" to establish a "national home" was spelled out in the Balfour declaration of 1917, and accepted and approved by the world body of its day, the League of Nations – in practice their path was still not cleared, and redemption was far from coming about. Precisely at the moment that succor was most needed, when Naziism was spreading its ugly anti-Semitic bile all over Europe, the doors of the homeland-in-making, as well as all other safe havens, were shut tight, condemning millions of our brothers and sisters to privation, unimaginable suffering, and an untimely death.
Again, our reaction to the situation was inspired by America's founding document. We read its words: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." We sent our best and most talented representatives to the new "world forum" – the United Nations – to plead our case for independence, and our plea won. The verdict came in, 33 to 13, allowing us to establish our nation in our land.
It has been fifty five years since we established Israel. Fifty five years of constant battle to survive, to overcome the obstacles of an enemy from without and a nation in constant flux from within. Six hundred and fifty thousand citizens at the founding, Israel opened wide its gates, taking in two displaced new immigrants for every citizen in the land in the first three years of its existence. War gave way to an uneasy and oft-broken armistice, immigration doubled the population again, and eight years later arms conflict resumed in the south, with Israel capturing the entire Sinai in one hundred hours. Eleven years later, Israel had to endure a war on three fronts against a coalition of Arab nations that included all the neighboring lands (save Lebanon) and volunteers from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and North Africa for good measure. The results of that conflict are now history. These conflicts were followed by "the war of Attrition," "the Yom Kippur War," the "Litany Campaign," and the "Peace for Galilee" Lebanon war.
All the while we were fighti8ng for our very survival among the family of nations. The Arab League ran an economic boycott of Israel that included threats against any company that had business dealings with Israel. Still, Israel reclaimed the wilderness, drain swaps and invented ways to make the desert bloom. The land became a model of modern living, exporting produce and fish to Earope, tulips to Holland, roses to Rome and dazzling cut diamonds to the best Jewelry stores in Paris, London and New York. Women from Rio de Janeiro to the French Riviera show off their lovely shape in Gotteks bathing suites, and Israeli veterans are employed as security experts by international businesses from air lines to world renowned personalities.
It has always been the hope and dream of Israel and world Jewry that we would find a way to make peace with our neighbors and become a partner with them in developing the potential that exists in the area to make it the wonderful place it can be for all its inhabitants. We have agreed to "family re-unifications at the end of the war of Independence, in 1949; We returned the Sinai to Egypt for what turned out to be empty promises of international guarantees of Israeli security in 1957; We were willing to return all captured lands immediately after the six days war at a peace conference with our enemies - only to be rebuffed by the Khartoum conference famous three "nos" – no recognition of Israel; no negotiations; no peace.
In 1991 Israel undertook the greatest risk to its future by entering negotiations with its avowed enemies, the P.L.O. – in yet another effort to bring peace to its citizens – twenty percent of whom are Christian and Moslem. The result was the Oslo accord, which turned out to be a mere scheme for the Palestinians to achieve some of their goals without resorting to armed conflict. Having reached the end of Israel's ability to "buy" peace with land and turning a blind eye to Palestinian aggression and perfidy, the armed struggle resumed, with greater loss of life, and with much suffering by innocent victims of Arab and Moslem stark and cruel terror. Men, women and children are killed and maimed by marauding terrorists, male and female, armed with pistols, carbines, assault rifles, knives and stones – and those inhuman weapons of destruction, the exploding body bombs mixed with bolts and nuts, nails, ball bearings and other objects that become flying missiles causing death and injury.
It is now evident that our neighbors absolutely will not, for reasons political, religious, and social, make peace with us. I think we need to go back to our declaration of independence and learn what recourse we have. Here is what our founding fathers said: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security... In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. "
Our founding fathers concluded, "as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. " Surely the same is true for the Jewish people living in their own land, which they have inhabited sinvce time immemorial, which they have purchased time and time again for inflated prices from absentee landowners or by edict from the legal governing body from Joshua to Hezekia, from King Darius to the British mandate authorities and their only legal successor, the State of Israel.
The times are difficult - but the chances are great, and the time of deliverance is close at hand. We need only trust is God and the just cause which we espouse. We wish to live in peace and harmony with all those who will do the same with us. But we also serve notice to those who scheme and plot to do us harm: we shall not go gently into the furnace, we shall not stretch our neck to the slaughter. We shall resist, we shall revolt, and we shall realize our destiny without any consent or permission from those who wish us harm. We have every right to do so – read the Declaration of Independence.



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