[Prepared a few months ago. just before the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Excuse me for no COVID-19 references]
The ambiguity of this holiday is mind-boggling.
It challenges our basic understanding of what a holiday/Holy-day is. We are accustomed to celebrating something that we tend to underestimate, or look down at, celebrating with no apparent reason. This ambiguity is reinforced by the contrast between Shmini Azeret and the rest of the Tishrei holidays. We celebrate God's Justice and Majesty on Rosh Hashana. We celebrate His forgiveness and our purity on Yom Kippur. We celebrate prosperity and nature on Succot. So how does Hashem expect us to celebrate nothing on Shmini Azeret?
In Israel, this question is muffled by the singing and dancing of Simchat Torah. This later celebration of the annual completion of the Torah reading has taken over the simplicity and apparent plainness of Shmini Azeret. I feel that the practices of Simchat Torah on Shmini azeret emulate the Torah study we practice on Shavuot – a chag which revolves round the giving of the Torah. No unique mitzvah is given for Shavuot or Shmini Azeret. So really the question at hand is: Why do we default to Torah, when specific mitzvot are unavailable?
Entering a day of celebration with no apparent reason poses a challenge. We can begin to solve this conundrum with one known obligation – we are obligated to rejoice and be happy – "ושמחת בחגך". To answer the question of what specific type of joy are we meant to focus on, the Midrash [Shir Hashirim Raba – Parasha א'] turns to father and son – Kings David and Shlomo – for an answer.
In the Halleluya chapters (111-118) King David voices Psalms of joy.
Towards the end of the Hallel, he proclaims:
" זֶה-הַיּוֹם, עָשָׂה ה'; נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ " [118, 24]
The Midrash is confused with the word "בו" –
does it refer to the "day" or to "Hashem"?
Is this proclamation referring to when to rejoice or to the focus of the joy?
To answer this dilemma, we turn to his son, King Shlomo who uses a very similar phrase in the opening paragraph of The Song of Songs
"מָשְׁכֵנִי, אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה;
הֱבִיאַנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ חֲדָרָיו,
נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בָּךְ-
-נַזְכִּירָה דֹדֶיךָ מִיַּיִן,
מֵישָׁרִים אֲהֵבוּךָ" [1, 4]
King Shlomo clarifies his father's ambiguity, by rephrasing his father's proclamation.
It is in Hashem that we rejoice.
Nevertheless, how do we celebrate someone, let alone G-d almighty?
let us look at how we celebrate significant birthdays.
We invite family and friends, we prepare food and drinks and we raise a toast. We lift our glass of wine as a means to focus on the celebrity (literally speaking). We mention their distinction and achievements, our relationship with them, and express how happy we are for their mere existence and how lucky we are to know them and for them to choose us as friends or to be family. With some luck, someone might also come up with some gematria.
King David used the word – בו – which adds up to 8.
This is a reference to Shmini Azeret.
King Shlomo used the word – בך – which adds up to 22.
In the Midrash, Rabbi Yitzchak uses this as a reference to the 22 letters of the Torah.
The son reveals that the father's eighth day is a day of Torah letters. Not words, psukim, or Mitzvot – only letters. These letters are elements by which the Torah is expressed but have no limitation to a specific mitzvah or particular idea.
We have encountered a three-part unity. Truth is, every relationship consists of three elements. There are the two partners and there is the relationship itself. This is true for Am Israel's relationship with Hashem as well. There is one side – Hashem. There is the second side – Israel. And there is a third element – the relationship itself – generally known as Torah.
The word עצרת – Azeret – can mean both a pause (stop-עצור) and a gathering. In our case – it is both. הֱבִיאַנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ חֲדָרָיו – The King has invited me in from the main party of the international Succot – to rejoice and celebrate our intimate relationship. No special reason. No special guests.
Just the two of us.
The ambiguity has cleared.
The veil has been removed
and a private event has been initiated.