Between the Torah and Its Giver: Shemini Atzeret and Simcḥat Torah
In the land of Israel, unlike in the Diaspora, two independent holidays have been woven into one. On one hand is Shemini Atzeret, the Biblical festival that concludes the celebration of Sukkot, and on the other hand is Simḥat Torah, the celebration of the Torah, instituted in the Geonic era, marking the moment that one reading cycle is completed and the next one begins. In the worshipper’s experience, this combines the solemn tones of Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain, with the raucous hakafot, singing and dancing with the Torah as we celebrate its renewal, and other festive elements that punctuate this day.
These two holidays thus complement but also overshadow one another. However, a look beyond the contents at the main ideas that the Sages wished to attribute to and place at the center of each of these holidays will reveal a theological tension between two worldviews and two rival religious models: One places Torah and its study at the center of religious worship, and the other places God and the development of a close relationship with Him at the center of consciousness.
The Torah as the Focus of Religious Consciousness
On Simḥat Torah, the Torah is at the center – not only the word of God contained in the Torah, but the physical book itself. We embrace, caress, and kiss it. We dance with it and read from it. Are we to identify the Torah with its Giver, and presume that placing the Torah at the center is the same as placing God in the center?
Many rabbinic sources treat the Torah as an independent entity, with a life of its own, that sometimes even confronts God and even, as it were, competes with Him. Two midrashim can serve as examples: In Shemot Rabbah (Terumah 33), the midrash seeks to resolve a difficulty in the verse: “Speak to the Israelites, that they shall bring gifts for Me” (Shemot 25:2).
The phrase “that they take for Me an offering” (“veyikḥu li”) is troublesome, as the verb can mean, “take,” bring,” or “purchase,” and the meaning of “for Me” is unclear. The homilist explains: Is there merchandise whose seller is sold along with it? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: I sold you My Torah; as it were, I am sold along with it, as it is stated, “that they take for Me an offering.” In this midrash, the Torah is compared to merchandise (“mekaḥ”), something bought and sold. “For I have given you a good buy (lekaḥ)” (Mishlei 4:2). It is sold to a buyer – namely, the Israelites – and becomes their property.
Normally, a seller gives the merchandise to the buyer and thus relinquishes any claim to it; the buyer takes it and goes home. The Torah, according to the midrash, is different in that the seller – God – is sold together with His merchandise, so wherever the buyer goes, the Seller goes, too. For this reason, the word “li” is emphasized. “Veyikḥu li” means “they will purchase Me.” The end of the verse in Mishlei, “do not forsake my Torah,” can be explained, according to this logic, not as a demand of Israel’s loyalty to the Torah, but as a description of God’s cleaving to His Torah, even after giving it to Israel. This idea remains opaque, so the homilist illustrates it and makes the idea accessible by means of a parable:
A king had an only daughter. Another king came and married her. He wished to take his wife and return to his land. He said to [the son-in-law]: My daughter that I gave you is an only daughter. I cannot bear to part with her, but I cannot tell you not to take her, for she is your wife. Do me this favor, however: Wherever your go, make a small chamber for me, so I can live with you, for I cannot leave my daughter. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel: I gave you the Torah. I cannot part with it, and I cannot tell you not to take it. Rather, wherever you go, build a house for Me, in which I will dwell, as it states: “And make for Me a sanctuary” (Shemot 25:8).
The relationship between God and the Jewish people, which until now has been portrayed as the relationship between a buyer and a seller in the market, is transformed into a filial metaphor. This new world of images includes the dilemmas faced by parents as their children grow up; they have a hard time freeing them from their protection and responsibility. They want to continue protecting them and staying with them even after they have become adults and flown the coop. God is portrayed as a king, and the Torah as his daughter who has reached adulthood. When the time comes for her to wed a neighboring king and take leave of her parental home, her father cannot bear it. He recognizes that this is the way of the world and that he is powerless to prevent his daughter and her new husband from making their own way, so he finds a creative solution so that he is not forced to separate from her, and he joins his daughter and son-in-law in their new home.
This seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward midrash that illustrates God’s love of the holy Torah and for the people of Israel and their unbreakable bond. It emphasizes that God and the Torah are a package deal: “The Torah, the Holy One, and Israel are one” (Zohar 3:73a). However, the midrash seems to invite another layer of reading as well – a bold theological reading that poses a very difficult and thorny question about the relationship between God and the Torah. On the metaphorical level, the king’s solution seems original and successful. However, if we consider it in a real-world context, which the midrash tries to sketch with specific detail, the picture seems a lot less natural or healthy.
We would expect the king to respect his daughter’s new relationship, to release her from his control, and to let her begin her new life with her father’s blessing, and with his love accompanying them from a distance. However, this is not what the king does. Skilled readers of the Torah and prophets expect to find God and His Torah on one side of the barrier and the people of Israel, scolded and brought to order, on the other side. Yet here the deck is shuffled and the roles reversed: On one side are the Torah and the people of Israel in an intimate relationship, and on the other side is God, seeking His place al but extraneous – a third wheel, as it were. This is a bold statement by the Sages, who wonder about God’s place in the world once the Torah has been given along with the tools to interpret it, and after the Temple has been destroyed and there is no more direct revelation.
We can explain God’s marginality in the parable in two ways: As a cry to God, protesting His distance and disappearance; as the critique of a reality in which it is difficult to discern God through His Torah; as a request for direct revelation; as a demand from God to arise in His full strength and glory and not allow His Torah, interpreted by human beings, to control the religious world of His believers. As a positive perspective on a reality that has changed (a familiar theme from other midrashim, the best-known being the “oven of akhnai”); as a description of the transition from the direct word of God to human interpretation. God’s word is no longer in the heavens; it is now on earth, mediated by mortals. We must be thankful for this.
Another midrash (Eikhah Rabbah, Petiḥta 2) outlines a similar process:
R. Huna and R. Yirmiyah said in the name of R. Ḥiya bar Aba: It is written: “They forsook Me and did not keep My Torah” (Yirmiyahu 16:11). Would that they would forsake Me but keep My Torah! From their engagement with it, the light within it would bring them back to good. In its original context, the verse in Yirmiyahu reprimands the people of Israel for their transgressions: “It is because your ancestors forsook me…. They forsook me and did not keep my Torah.”
The verse sets God and the Torah as parallels, objects of the sinful abandonment of the people of Israel when they forsook God and did not observe His Torah. R. Huna and R. Yirmiyah choose to read the verse differently and to set God and the Torah in opposition to each other. At first glance, there is an unfortunate choice between two paths, between forsaking God and forsaking the Torah, and the correct choice that these Sages place in God’s mouth, when no other choice is available, is: “Would that they would forsake Me but keep My Torah!” This, too, generates tension between God and His Torah, and, according to God’s will and instruction, the Torah wins, as a great light shines through it, which will bring the people back to the good. The midrash, however, does not end on this note, and the discomfort we feel when we read these words is also felt by the editor of the midrash, who cites the words of R. Huna in continuation of the statement of R. Yirmiyah: R. Huna said: Study Torah even for ulterior motives, for through ulterior motives will come [study] for its own sake.
Accordingly, the victory of the Torah is the beginning of a dialectical process. “Ulterior motives” means studying Torah for reasons other than coming closer to God, without seeking His presence through study. “For its own sake” is the proper form of study, which weaves the Holy One back into the Torah, even in a world where there is no longer direct revelation, a post-Destruction world. R. Huna returns the readers of the midrash to the point of origin: The Holy One and His Torah are intertwined with one another, and the very choice of the Torah will inexorably lead to choosing God again. However, even now, the debate is not over. The editor of the midrash, like a pendulum, returns our focus to the written Torah by means of a statement by R. Yehoshua ben Levi, which likewise places words in God’s mouth at Sinai and takes them as reflective of His will: R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Every day, a heavenly echo emerges from mount Horeb and declares: “Woe unto humankind for their contempt of Torah.”
Simḥat Torah is not a Biblical holiday, but a product of the Sages’ invention. Some say that it took shape in Babylonia as a celebration marking the completion of the annual Torah-reading cycle, as is our custom today. Other maintain that it originated in the land of Israel, an extension of the practice of hak’hel on Sukkot every seven years. On Simḥat Torah, the Torah, it seems, prevailed, and so it takes center stage, both in a philosophical sense and in a very concrete sense.
God as the Focus of Religious Consciousness
However, in the land of Israel, the two holidays were combined into one, and they get mixed up with one another. Simḥat Torah does not stand alone in the theoretical realm; its contents do not have exclusive influence on religious consciousness. The day of Simḥat Torah is the day of Shemini Atzeret, the Biblical holiday. Shemini Atzeret does not focus on the Torah or its giving, nor on the written text or scroll, nor on study and learning. It focuses, rather, on the connection to God Himself. The verse in Shir HaShirim (1:4), “Draw me after you, let us run! The king has brought me to his chambers. Let us delight and rejoice in you,” is interpreted to refer to Shemini Atzeret. Shir HaShirim is a love song, a song of love and longing, but according to its allegorical interpretation, the lovers are God and the people of Israel, and not as we have seen thus far, the people of Israel and the Torah.
The Torah does not appear in this context as the third wheel of this relationship, but as part and parcel of the presence of God Himself. This is how the verse is expounded in Shir HaShirim Rabbah: R. Avin began: “This is the day that the Lord made. Let us delight and rejoice in it.” R. Avin said: We do not know with what to rejoice – in the Lord, or in the day? Solomon came along and explained: “Let us delight and rejoice in you” – in the Lord; “in you” – in Your salvation; “in you” – in Your Torah; “in you” – in Your reverence… “in you” – in the 22 letters with which You wrote the Torah for us.
R. Avin’s homily is based on two parallel verses: the aforementioned verse from Shir HaShirim, “Let us delight and rejoice in you,” and a verse from Tehilim (118:24) that is familiar from Hallel, “Let us delight and rejoice in it.” The homilist juxtaposes the verses so as to ascertain the identity of the object of our rejoicing on Shemini Atzeret – is it the holiday itself, or God? The homily introduces the possibility, the “hava amina”, only in order to reject it: Can anyone stand next to the Holy One and rival Him? Of course not! Our rejoicing is in God alone. All other possibilities – salvation, Torah, reverence, the letters of Scripture – do not stand on their own. They are all ramifications of the relationship with God. They are God’s works and creations, and we must thank Him for them, focusing on Him. This idea is developed further in later midrashim that address the special intimacy between God and His people, which envelops this holiday. This special relationship is described in Peskita Rabbati, contrasting the atmosphere of Shemini Atzeret with that of Sukkot: “On the eighth day” – The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: My children, I know that all seven days of Sukkot you were busy with the offerings of the nations of the world. Now, you and I will rejoice for one day. I will not burden you too much; only one bull and one ram. When Israel heard this, they began praising God and saying: “This is the day that the Lord made. Let us delight and rejoice in it.”
Sukkot is a universal holiday, marking the ingathering of the year’s produce, on which 70 bulls are offered on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. The people of Israel celebrate together with the nations of the world, intertwined with them and sharing the Holy One with all of humanity.
However, at the end of Sukkot, when the hullabaloo dies down, the Holy One recognizes His people’s need and even expresses His own need to devote an extra moment of quiet intimacy to rejoicing in the private celebration of the people of Israel with its God. One additional day, an extra moment of grace, a sort of “after-party” in which God’s attention is devoted entirely to the people of Israel.
Shemini Atzeret, which has barely any character or specialty in Scripture, and whose nature is not clear even in the prayer rites in the land of Israel today, is interpreted by midrashim as a climactic moment, a festival that represents intimacy with God and the direct connection of the mutual rejoicing of God and His people.
On Shemini Atzeret, the direct relationship with God overcomes any mediation or bridge. There is no trace or alienating effect of the Destruction and the end of prophecy.
The combining of Simḥat Torah and Shemini Atzeret in the land of Israel expresses and externalizes the theological tension and the delicate balance between God’s supremacy and the supremacy of Torah, between the preference for direct revelation and the advantages of a written Torah that bears human interpretation. Both of these ideas have a place of pride, and each warranted the institution of a separate holiday.
They both represent central and worthy values. On this combined holiday, which concludes the Tishrei holidays, we are asked to swing back and forth like a pendulum – to express our love and rejoice in the Torah by dancing hakafot and completing the Torah-reading cycle, and to display our direct connection with God through the festival prayers and our petitioning Him for a good rainy season.