For Shemini Atzeret
For Simchat Torah
Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12; Genesis 1:1-2:3;
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Some time ago, somewhere in a country that gets very cold, two Learned Men — you can tell they are learned from the way they tug at their beards; you can tell there are two of them by counting — walk down an icy road. If you guess they are on their way to synagogue, you would be correct. Where else would Learned Men be going after all? Did I mention their names? Shmul and Yonkl.
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Shmul: Careful, Yonkl, you’ll pull your beard out. What’s the matter?
Yonkl: Shemini Atzeret.
Shmul: A fine holiday.
Yonkl: Yeah? Ever try to write a dvar Torah on it?
Shmul: Of course. It’s easy. You just rattle on about how it’s God’s way of having us stick around a little while longer after Sukkot. An excellent example of His love for Israel.
Yonkl: You find that in the Torah?
Shmul: Well… Not exactly.
Yonkl: Not even remotely. As it is written: “On the eighth day ye shall have a solemn assembly” (Numbers 29:35). That’s what “ atzeret” means, solemn assembly. And “ shemini” means eighth day. Big help.
Shmul: But that’s midrash. You immerse yourself in the narrative —
Yonkl: Narrative? It’s a shopping list. Rams, bullocks, he-goats.
Shmul: Well, it is the last Torah reading, and there are a few odds and ends left over that have to be taken care of.
Yonkl: Odds and ends? Leftovers? Where’s the beef?
Shmul: That would be the bullocks. And the rams.
Yonkl: The rams are the beef?
Shmul: Did you count the bullocks that are offered for Sukkot?
Yonkl: I counted the bullocks. Seventy.
Shmul: For the 70 nations of the world.
Yonkl: That’s tradition, not Torah.
Shmul: [Ignoring Yonkl] And how many bullocks for Shemini Atzeret?
Yonkl: As it is written: “One bullock, one ram” (Numbers 29:36).
Shmul: As the Midrash says: “God said to Israel… you and I shall rejoice together, and I shall not burden you over much…”
Yonkl: That’s the stuff I’m having a problem with. Midrash, analogies, interpretations, haftarahs. All this stuff between us and The Word. We read the Torah portion; we immerse ourselves in the scholarship and wisdom of the Sages; we study midrash; we read Rashi; we read the Ba’al Shem Tov. Then we have two choices. Either go along with the received wisdom — the 70 bullocks are for the 70 nations, the 98 lambs avert the 98 curses, as it is written in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Or we look God in the eye, are instantly blinded and report back what we have seen.
Shmul: Exactly. Shemini Atzeret is for you. Not for the nations, for you. One bullock, one ram. You and God. That’s why it’s such a solemn occasion.
Yonkl: As it is written: “Aye, there’s the rub.” The tension between individual spiritual insight and the collective wisdom and traditions of the community.
Shmul: What tension? We’re a big tent people.
Yonkl: There’s no tent that big.
Shmul: Of course there is. Look!
Yonkl looks up the road to a low stone building black with the soot of ages.
From the synagogue come the sounds of laughter and song and the thunder of exuberant, if ungainly, dance. Then out the door and onto the snowy drifts by the roadside, the congregation comes bearing the scrolls and galumphing like maniacs.
Yonkl: Simchat Torah already?
Shmul: Of course! Shemini Atzeret is over.
Yonkl: There it is again. How can we mush together such entirely different holidays? Shemini Atzeret is quiet and thoughtful; Simchat Torah is joyous. Look at them dancing around like lunatics. How do they even know when one ends and the other begins?
Shmul: When we stop being solemn and start acting like a bunch of crazies, that’s Simchat Torah.
Yonkl: But the moment we finish reading for one year, we start all over again for the next.
Yonkl: And we dance for joy.
Yonkl: But which is that, the received wisdom of tradition? Or the chaos of a personal encounter with the ineffable?
Shmul: Don’t get above your raisin’. If you don’t think there’s room for individual spiritual insight, you aren’t dancing fast enough.
Yonkl: I still say Shemini Atzeret is impossible as dvar Torah material.
Jeffrey Fiskin is a writer living in Hollywood with his family.