Vzot Habracha, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Vzot Habracha is the final Parasha of the Torah. It is interesting that in the Diaspora, this Parasha can never be read on Shabbat. This is because we have to finish the Torah on Simchat Torah.
What Is The Origin Of This Celebration?
The Torah itself makes no mention of this day. The Torah states that the final day is called Shemini Atzeret. Although it falls on the day after Sukkot it is not related to Sukkot and has its own energy.
Shemini Atzeret is a contrast of emotions. In the Diaspora, the day is divided into two with Shmini Atzeret the serious day and Simchat Torah one filled with joy. On Shmini Atzeret we pray for rain, recite Yizkor and in most years recite the Book Of Kohelet – the book of Ecclesiastes a fascinating read about what is the purpose of life.
Simchat Torah is all about joy and celebration. We finish reading the Torah and begin the new cycle. There is dancing, singing, and revelry. In Israel, both events are wrapped into one.
Meaning of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
We are told that on Sukkot we are judged for the rain that will fall. We all know that without rain there is no life. This is highlighted by the Hebrew word for rain גשם. The Hebrew word for materialism is גשמיות. Without rain, there can be no material survival. This prayer for rain is one recited for all of the world. This reflects the universal nature of Judaism.
On the other hand, we have Simchat Torah, on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, the special gift to the Jewish People. Simchat Torah is our celebration of the great gift given to the Jewish People, the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah has been our lifeblood for generations and has been the secret to our survival over the centuries down to our very day.
It is interesting to note that the very last word of the Torah is ישראל (Yisrael) and the first is בראשית (Bereishit). Thus the final letter of the Torah is a ל and the first letter is a ב, together forms the word לב which means heart. The Torah is the heartbeat of the Jewish People.
Why Do We Celebrate Simchat Torah Now?
Shouldn’t we celebrate Simchat Torah at Shavuot when we received the Torah? The answer is that when we received the Torah we were excited. But we had no idea as to what we received. Now that we have studied the Torah for the past few months we are truly able to appreciate the gift that we have received. Thus the celebration of Simchat Torah is so much more joyous.
But why now? It seems that the reason relates to the theme of the final verses of the Torah. In Parashat Vzot Habracha we read how Moses Blessed the Jewish People before he left them. This theme is mirrored by the blessing given to the Jewish People, by King Solomon, after the dedication of the First Temple- read as the haftarah on Shemini Atzeret in the Diaspora.
The theme of the day is: receiving a blessing before leaving. This is not only about Moses taking leave of the Jewish People but of us too leaving Hashem. For the past 50 days from the start of Elul through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and now with Sukkot, we have been building and rebuilding our connection to Hashem.
But now the time is over and we are about to part ways. To return to the mundane of our lives. No more Torah festivals until Pesach. This parting is hard and we ask Hashem for a blessing that we should merit to take all that we have achieved and learnt over this time and bring it into our daily lives, devoid of the religious days and energy that we have enjoyed until now. The departure is painful but the blessings sustain us.
The Blessings that we read on Simchat Torah do not only end the Torah but end this time period. A new chapter and new beginning starts immediately as we not only begin a new cycle of the Torah readings but a new day in our service of Hashem. Serving Him in the mundane of the daily ritual.