Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah - שמיני עצרת ושמחת תורה

A number of the Jewish festivals are referred to by more than one name. For example, Sukkot is also known by the moniker Chag Ha'Asif, Shmini Atzeret is also referred to as Simchat Torah and Pesach is sometimes called Chag Hamatzot. Similarly, Rosh Hashana is called Yom T'ruah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaDin, while Shavuot is known variously as Chag HaBikkurim, Chag HaKatzir and Zman Matan Torateinu.

Each of these names have a different meaning and represent a different aspect of each festival. In a speech I heard last year, Rav Yonah Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, suggested that some of these names are linked. While he didn't go through all the names of all the chagim, he took a few examples.

The two names Pesach and Chag Hamatzot, Rav Metzger suggested, are a pair. Pesach refers to Hashem's passing over the houses of the Jews; it is Bnei Yisrael's way of being grateful for Hashem's kindness in overlooking them while killing Egyptians worthy of death. On the other hand, Chag Hamatzot is Hashem's name for the festival and it refers to how God found our actions favourable. (We displayed a desire to leave Egypt swiftly when the time came, to the point whereby we let bread bake on our backs.)

In the same way, two of Sukkot's names can be seen as a pair; Chag Ha'Asif, Festival of the Collecting (of the harvest,) is the one of the names that the Jewish people uses for it - we thank God that we He has given us sustenance. But Hashem has refers to it from a different perspective; His name for the festival is Sukkot, for He recognises the Jewish people's devotion to sitting outside in the Sukkah, often through what can sometimes prove to be rather unpleasant conditions.

And so too we have the names of Chag Shmini Ha'atzeret and Simchat Torah. Shmini means eight, and Atzeret means stopping. Rav Metzger explained that this name can be understood as belonging to Hashem. After seeing the Jews observing Sukkot for seven days, he says to us "today is the eight day - you may stop dwelling in your Sukkot now and dwell inside with me." So that's Hashem's perspective, as it were.

But there's a second name, too: Simchat Torah. This moniker represents a rather different aspect; it represents the side of Bnei Yisrael and shows the Jewish nation's love for Hashem. When we celebrate Simchat Torah, we are thanking Hashem for the greatest gift given - that of the Torah. While we refer to our festivals by their various names without thought, interchangeably even, it is interesting to note how these names dovetail and reciprocate each other's sentiments, despite the differences between them.

From Jerusalem, wishing you all a Chag Sameach!

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