Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shmini Atzeret-Simhat Torah-Hol Hamoed (Haftarot)

“And they blessed the king”

1 Kings 8:54-66 is as the haftarah for Shemini Atzeret—the only “Second Day of Yom Tov for the Diaspora” which actually precedes the first day. That is, the liturgy used in Israel on the one and only day of this hag—i.e., that for Simhat Torah, with its Hakkafot, the ending and beginning anew of the reading of the Torah —is actually practiced on the second day every else.

This reading continues the chapter read on the Second Day of Sukkot in the Diaspora, in which the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple is concluded with his blessing the people. This is done in a brief prayer, in which he calls upon God to bless His people Israel, at whose end he and all the people offer sacrifices. The final verse is interesting: “On the eighth day he sent the people away, and they blessed the king, and returned to their homes with joy and gladness of heart.” Rav Soloveitchik once observed that this verse serves as the basis for the old-fashioned custom, whereby on Shemini Atzeret people would go to the home of the rabbi (“Who are the kings? The Rabbis!”), give and receive blessings, and return to their homes to enjoy a particularly festive holiday meal. This in turn spawned the custom of matan yad, of pledging money to charity on those days (in the Diaspora only!) when the verse Deut 16:17 was read from the Torah (i.e., the 8th day of Passover; 2nd day of Shavuot; Shemini Atzeret), which in turn seems to have been the origin of reciting Yizkor on these pilgrimage festivals.

Simhat Tora: Joshua’s New Beginning

Our haftarah for Simhat Torah is Joshua 1:1-18: the sequel to Moses’ death, describing the final preparations before going into the Land of Israel. Like the Torah reading for this day, this haftarah is both an end and a new beginning: it picks up immediately after where the Torah ends, with the death of Moses, and begins the readings from the Prophets at the very beginning. It depicts a gathering of the people, in which Joshua speaks to the people with words of encouragement and strengthening: “be strong and of good courage”—hazak ve-ematz.

Apocalypse, Redemption, and Sukkot

We asked earlier why haftarot relating to the messianic age, particularly the passages from Zechariah and Ezekiel describing violent apocalyptic events, are read during Sukkot? One answer is to be found in Franz Rosenzweig’s famous three-fold scheme in the Star of Redemption, in which the three pilgrimage festivals are seen as corresponding to the three stages of sacred history in Judaism: Creation, Revelation and Redemption. The Exodus from Egypt, commemorated by Pesah, in a certain metaphorical sense may be read as the moment of creation and beginning of the Jewish nation; Shavuot, the festival of the great epiphany at Sinai, is of course Revelation; while Sukkot, as the final, and in a sense unhistorical one of the triad, points toward the future, as yet unknown, age of Redemption.

But the three festivals also correspond to the three ages of the individual: youth, maturity, and old age. The three scrolls read on these days illustrate this clearly: Song of Songs, at least on the literal level, portrays the lyrical romance of youth, the total absorption of the two lovers in one another. The Book of Ruth depicts the serious, practical concerns of maturity, of middle life; even the “romantic” interest is depicted in terms of responsibility within a social context. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, looks back upon life with a certain sense of distance that is only possible in old age, drawing conclusions in retrospect about the entire course of life. So too Sukkot comes at a time of completion, of fulness, of harvest—but also a point at which one awaits the beginning of the next cycle, where one must first go through the chill and hibernation of winter, a kind of “mini-death” in the natural world. (Interestingly, in Rabbinic doctrine the judgement on Rosh Hashana is seen as a kind of miniature or muted version of the judgment passed on each person at the end of his/her life. This may also take on an added meaning in light of the equation: Sukkot/Tishrei = old age/death = passage to the future.

To take the analogy one step further: just as death, even if seen by the believer as a transition to a new stage, is fraught with fear, pain and uncertainty, the prospect of life after death being “the great unknown”; so too the Eschaton, the age of messianic Redemption, as the “third stage” in history, is the great unknown in the historical sense. Like the Afterlife, knowledge of its existence altogether is a matter of faith, rather than of concrete, empirical knowledge. Having said all this, we may now understand that the joy of Sukkot is of a very peculiar sort: not the unfettered, spontaneous, almost instinctive joy of youth, of simple joy in life itself, but rather a kind of enlightened, almost philosophical, bitter-sweet joy, tempered by the knowledge of the passing nature of all things, and rejoicing in the eternity of God, of the Torah and mitzvot, and of the Jewish people.

I remember, as a young man, visiting the Gerer shteibl on Manhattan’s West Side on one of the days of Sukkot. After the davening, an elderly man sitting in the sukkah kept on repeating (in Ashkenazic pronunciation) the phrase from Pirkei Avot, hayeludim lawmoos (“those who are born are to die”), with a strange sort of joy. I interpreted this as a deeply religious, almost quietistic, acceptance of his, and our, mortality, which somehow epitomized the essence of Sukkot.


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