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Shmini Atzeret and 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

We celebrate the end of the "holiday season" of the month of Tishrei with the Eighth day of Assembly and 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 want to want to go. In this time, I think that the following letter which I received just the other day from a friend in Israel, is the most fitting message.

An open letter from an Israeli to his neighbors, near and far...

Dear World,

It appears that you are just too hard to please.

I understand that you are upset with us here in Israel. Indeed, it appears that you are quite upset, maybe even angry and outraged. As a matter of fact, every few months or years, recently, you seem to become upset with us all over again. Today, you are upset because we won't sit down at the table and negotiate (what? Our own demise?) with our neighbors, our intractable, uncompromising enemies, even while they continue to attack innocent civilians - our children, women, and the elderly. Yesterday it was the brutal ‘repression' and ‘occupation' of the Palestinians (to whom we gave back control over 96 percent of the Arab population); last week, it was our security needs in Lebanon; before that, it was the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq and the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War in which we successfully defended ourselves against the onslaught of massive enemy armies on two fronts on the holiest day of the year. In the first few days of that sneak attack, when the Egyptians and Syrians were killing three thousand Israeli youths, you were silent. It was only when we were at the gates of Damascus and the road to Cairo that you got upset again. It appears that, when Jews triumph and, therefore, live, we upset you extraordinarily.
Of course, dear world, long before there was an Israel, we, the Jewish people, upset you. We upset the German people, so that they elected Adolph Hitler, mastermind of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Problem," and we upset an Austrian people, who cheered his entry into Vienna, and we upset a whole slew of Slavic nations - Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, and Romanians, who willingly participated in his macabre, hideous orgy of brutal genocide.
And we go back a long, long way in the history of world upset. We upset the Cossacks of Chmielnicki, so that they just had to massacre tens of thousands of us in1648 and 1649; we upset the Crusaders who, on their way to liberate the Holy Land, were so distressed at the Jews that they felt compelled to slaughter untold thousands of us in communities all over Europe. We upset, for centuries, the Roman Catholic Church, to whom we gave our Scriptures, so that it just had to define our relationship through persecution, exile, and inquisition. And we upset the archenemy of the Roman Church, Martin Luther, who, in his call to burn the synagogues and the Jews within them, showed an admirable Christian loving spirit and ‘turning the other cheek.' We upset every nation in Western Europe to the point that they expelled us, and when they let us back in, because they needed our talents, they forced us to live in ghettos, in subhuman conditions and readily available for repeated riots and blood letting.
It is because we became so distressed and grieved over upsetting you, dear world, that we decided to leave you, in a manner of speaking, to separate ourselves from you and establish a Jewish State. The rationale and justification for our new enterprise of building a nation was that by living in close contact with you, as resident-strangers in the various countries that all of you inhabit, we upset you, irritated you, and disturbed you. What better notion, then, we proposed, than to leave you and thus show you that we really love you, and - we hoped - have you love us in return.
This is how we reached our decision to go back home - to the same homeland from which we were driven out 1,900 years earlier by a Roman world that we also upset. A small remnant always hung on to that promised land, and we resolved to join them. We knew that our ancient land was made a wilderness, sparsely inhabited by nomads and poor tenant farmers and made home to jackals, wild goats and scorpions. The once fertile valley became a swamp infested by malaria-carrying mosquitos, the terraced hills were neglected and swept barren by wind and rain, and the sea coast was devastated and overtaken by yellow Nile silt-sand. However, we saw the land through the prism of our Book of Books, and resolved to make it once more a "land of milk and honey."
Alas, dear world, it appears that you are hard to please. Having left you and your Pogroms and Inquisitions and Crusades and Holocausts, having taken our leave of the world at large, to PURCHASE our land acre by acre (at much inflated rates) from those who held title to it, drain the swamps and defeat the scourge of malaria, drive back the rolling sands that the sea brought from the Nile to make the Sharon coastal valley fertile once again, we attempted to live alone in our own little land. Still, we continue to upset you.
You are upset that the 5.5 million of us expect, and insist that we have a right, to live here unmolested on our tiny speck of land that was mostly despised desert before we arrived here, when your planet has room for over 6 billion people. You claim that we oppress the Palestinians, impede their natural wish to be a nation among the nations, and that really upsets you. You are deeply angered over the fact that we do not give up the lands we took in the war of 1967, which, to you, are clearly the obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Washington is upset and Moscow is upset. London is upset as is Paris, Rome, Oslo and even Brussels. Naturally, the Arabs are upset - the despotic rulers of Syria and Iraq, the more civilized autocrats of Jordan and the Gulf Emirates - and the Egyptian moderates are upset, too, it seem, and counsel war.
Well, dear world, consider the reaction of a Jew from Israel. In 1920, 1921 and 1929, there were no territories of 1967 to impede peace between Jews and Arabs. Indeed, there was no Jewish State to upset anybody. Nevertheless, the same oppressed and repressed Palestinians slaughtered hundreds of Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Safed and Hebron.
Dear world, why did these Arabs - the Palestinians - massacre hundreds of Jews in those years? Could it have been because of their anger over Israeli occupation of their land? And why were 510 Jewish men, women and children slaughtered in Arab riots between 1936 and 1939? Would you suggest that it was because of Arab sensitivity to roadblocks at border crossings? And when you, world, proposed a United Nations Partition Plan in 1947 that would have created a Palestinian State alongside a tiny Israel, and the Arabs promised a blood bath and went to war, and killed 6,000 Jews, out of a population of 600,000 - was that infraction of international law caused by their extreme reaction to Jewish expansionism? And, by the way, dear world, why did we not hear your cry of protest over Jewish victims in all those events?
The Palestinians, who today kill Jews with explosives and firebombs and stones are part of the same people who, when they had all the territories they now demand be given them for their state, refused to make peace and attempted to drive the Jewish State into the sea. The same twisted faces, the same hate, the same cry of "itbakhun-al-yahud" - "Slaughter the Jews!" that we hear and see today, were seen and heard then. The same blood thirsty mob who lynched two innocent young reservists in Ramallah last year, proudly waving the blood-soaked hands and arms that committed the atrocity to the frenzied crowd - and mutilated the bodies of dead martyrs in the Hills of Hebron in 1948. They are the same people who refused Israel the right to be born in 1948 - and today dream of and scheme and design and connive and plan for Israel's destruction. What they failed to do yesterday, they fantasize of doing today and envision doing tomorrow - but we are told that we must not "repress" them. They must be given a chance to manifest their destiny.
Dear world, you stood by and did nothing when millions of our people died in the Holocaust and you stood by and did nothing in 1948 when seven Arab states launched a war that the Arab League proudly proclaimed would rival the Mongol invasion and massacres. You stood by and did nothing in 1967 (in spite of ironclad guarantees given to Israel by Great Britain, the Europeans, and the U.S. in 1956-57), as Gamal Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt and leader of the Arab world, wildly cheered by wild mobs in every Arab capital in the world, vowed to drive the Jews into the sea. A few weeks ago my neighbor's two daughters, aged fifteen and sixteen, were blown to pieces by a misguided, brainwashed young man who was promised an eternity in an x-rated paradise by wicked religious teachers, and my American cousin was killed a few days later by another misguided youth who disrupted lunchtime business at Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem's down town. Where was world outrage then? Where was the U.N. with its resolutions to condemn the perpetrators of violence? Who stood up and pointed a finger and shouted ‘racists' at these perpetrators and those who trained and guided them? There was no sound, to fury, not even a whimper. Your repeated silence spoke volumes, to be sure.

And you would stand by and do nothing, again, tomorrow - if Israel were facing extinction - as it is, each and every day. Only we will not allow it.

Since we know that the Palestinians daily dream of our demise, we will do everything in our power to remain alive in our own land. If that aggravates and annoys you, dear world, I sincerely regret it. I am sure that you think you would be much better off if we could just disappear, evaporate like a puff of smoke. Just try to see it from our view point: think how many times in the past you have disappointed us. We have given you so much love, so much progress, so much wisdom, so much blessing. We gave you our ideals and our faith, our God and our teaching of mercy and salvation. Above all, we have taught you the meaning of hope and of human dignity. We don't know why you are so short sighted that you don't know from where your blessings come. We suggest that you go back to the sources. Read the Book. Your Book, which was our Book first. Love God - and love your neighbors as yourself.

Shmini Atzeret - Simkhat Torah

This Sghabbat 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]

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