Emanuel Synagogue

Shmini Atseret and Simchat Torah - Jewish Psychology and Spirituality

In Israel shmini atseret (the last day of Sukkot) and simchat torah are on the same day. Outside Israel shminin atseret is the last day of Sukkot and the day after is simchat torah.

On shmini atseret we start saying “may the rain fall” morid ha geshem in the amida prayer, a prayer that we say for about 6 months. Even if we are not in Israel, we pray for rain to fall in Israel and of course by extension, for the right amount of rain to fall in all the world. In ancient times, water was poured over the altar instead of wine – water for the rain.

Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Gershon Winkler have interpreted this prayer as one of many indigenous practices that strengthen our connection to the Land of Israel whether we live there or not.

In the kabbalah of 16th Century Tsfat, Isaac Luria taught that, shmini atseret is the culmination of the whole period of Teshuvah, repentence – from the first of the Hebrew month of Elul to the end of Sukkot. During this period, we work on ourselves in order to improve and make a plan for a year ahead of goodness and success. On a cosmic level, shmini atseret was seen as the day of mystical union between an individual and the divine and also a union of different aspects of G-d – a union between the aspect of Shechinah and the Kadosh Baruch Hu. Described through a metaphor of a love that starts budding on the first of Elul and culminates in this mystical union on shminin atseret. The key to their union is cultivating the aspect of panim el panim ‘face to face’ both on a material and spiritual.

Moshe Chayyim Luzzato in 18th Century Italy, takes these mystical teachings and gives them a human flavour. There are four states of cosmic being in Lurianic Kabbalah: back to back, back to front, front to back and face to face. The highest level is face to face and that is hopefully achieved on the festival of shminin atseret.

In terms of human relationships, we can think of this in terms of different ways we relate to others. When we are face to face with another person, we understand them and feel they understand us. There is a flow of positive energy between the two. This can be related to love but also to all types of interactions with others, whether it be on an intellectual level, a creative level and emotional level.

At other times we find ourselves at odds with another person and this is called back to back. It is a state in which we have turned our back to a person and they have turned their back to us. This is the lowest of levels. Back to front is when one person is open to relating however the other is not and you can work out the fourth level, I am sure.

The basic teaching is that by the end of this period of teshuvah, we have hopefully reached a new level of relating to others and to ourselves. We have reached a new level of tikkun – repair.

One aspect of teshuvah is the concept of return. The word teshuvah-repentance has the same Hebrew root as shav-return, and so the sages have taught that repenting is accompanied by a return of our connection to our essence and our core. We return to our essence when we connect deeply with the heart and with our feeling of purpose in the world. This is done through the work of teshuvah and it takes time and effort. Simchat Torah, the festival where we celebrate the Torah through singing and dancing, is also a time when we connect deeply with Torah as our source. The Hasidic sage, the Me’or Eynaim, taught that on Simchat Torah each person has an aliyah, that is, an ascent of the soul. As we dance around the Torah (or connect deeply with Torah) our soul connects with its source. This connects with an ancient Jewish legend that states that each person’s source is in one letter of the Torah. That letter is written on the parchment of a Torah and also exists in a spiritual realm. When we connect with Torah, we connect with the source letter of our soul. Some communities have a beautiful tradition of unrolling the whole Torah, having the community hold the Torah in a circle. A few people stand inside the circle and read the verse of Torah that each person is standing close to.

Wishing you a meaningful and joyful conclusion to this period of awe,

Dr. Rabbi Orna Triguboff