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Hol HaMoed Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret 5781
by Meir Sendor
One of the recurring symbols of Chag HaSukkot is the circle. In the Shul, for those of us able to halakhically and lawfully daven in a Shul this challenging year, we circle once around the central Bimah with the Arba’ah Minim each day of Hol HaMoed for Hoshanot, and seven times on Hoshana Rabba. On Shemini Atzeret we circle around the Bimah at least seven times, and in practice many more times, celebrating Simchat Torah with the Sifrei Torah. The very word Chag itself in Hebrew, from the root חגג , means to circle around, the characteristic devotional activity of the festivals.
According to Rabbi Hayyim Vital, the purpose of circling around the Bimah with the Arba’ah Minim is to “draw illumination from the surrounding divine light, to remain with the Sefirah Malkhut, symbolized by the altar [of the Temple] or the bimah [of the synagogue]. (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Sukkot, 107b).” On Hoshana Rabba each of the seven circlings is dedicated to each of the seven Sefirot in descending order: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Nezach, Hod, Yesod, Malkhut. The goal is not to lift off spiritually upward, but to bring down, so to speak, to realize divine light, divine consciousness in our world more and more clearly. In this sense the circling is not a return of the same, but a continual progress of greater realization.
This principle that our circling is progressive, more of a spiraling than a repetitive circling, is also expressed in the other great cycle of this festival – our completion, on Shemini Atzeret – Simchat Torah, of the weekly reading of the Torah and immediately beginning again with Bereshit. The cycle of Torah reading is certainly progressive – every year our understanding deepens. And this is signaled in the very transition from the last verse of the Torah back to the first. The Torah ends:
דברים פרק לד
י) ולא קם נביא עוד בישראל כמשה אשר ידעו יקוק פנים אל פנים:
יא) לכל האתת והמופתים אשר שלחו יקוק לעשות בארץ מצרים לפרעה ולכל עבדיו ולכל ארצו:
יב) ולכל היד החזקה ולכל המורא הגדול אשר עשה משה לעיני כל ישראל:
No prophet has ever arisen in Israel like Moshe, whom HaShem knew face to face. For all the signs and proofs that HaShem sent him to perform in the land of Egypt to Paro and all his servants and all his land. And for all the strong hand and all the great awe that Moshe accomplished in the eyes of all Israel.
On the last phrase of the Torah, “in the eyes of all Israel,” Rashi, following the Sifrei , comments:
רש”י דברים פרק לד פסוק יב
לעיני כל ישראל – שנשאו לבו לשבור הלוחות לעיניהם, שנאמר (לעיל ט, יז) ואשברם לעיניכם, והסכימה דעת הקדוש ברוך הוא לדעתו, שנאמר (שמות לד, א) אשר שברת, יישר כחך ששברת:
“In the eyes of all Israel” – that [Moshe’s] heart prompted him to break the Tablets [of the Covenant] in front of their eyes, as it says “I broke them in front of your eyes (Dt. 9:17),” and the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed with his opinion…
What a way to end the entire Torah! Of all things that the very last three words of the Torah could allude to – to Moshe breaking the Tablets in response to Israel worshipping the golden calf! The Torah ends with the breaking of Torah. But that’s just right. Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Hokhmah, explains that Moshe broke the Tablets inscribed with Torah by God Himself because, in the idolatrous state of mind the Israelites were in, they would have turned the Tablets themselves, which include the prohibition against idolatry, into an idol (Ex. 32:19). So Moshe smashed them, and God agreed and congratulated him. And the broken pieces were kept in the Ark as a sober reminder that we always need to be wary of reducing Torah itself, the Living Word of the Living God, into a rigid, lifeless, life-denying idol. This means we need to be wary of rigid readings and narrow literalism and inflexible behavior. Torah is the limitless Word of God, not the limited word of man: we need to keep opening our hearts and minds to really learn what God is trying to teach us and how He is trying to guide us. So the Torah ends beautifully with this allusion to breaking the stone tablets, to enlighten the eyes of all Israel, to clear our way to start over at the beginning, with the new consciousness of the New Year, open to continually new revelations of the Word of God.
While we’re talking about the remarkable last words of the Torah leading back to the first in a deeper way, we can also consider the remarkable last words of the entire Tana’kh – that also lead back to the first. The last book of the Tana’kh is Divrei HaYamim, the chronicled history of the world that focuses on the history of Israel. It begins with Adam and takes us to the end of the Babylonian and Persian exile. This is how the whole Tana”kh ends:
דברי הימים ב פרק לו
יט) וישרפו את בית האלהים וינתצו את חומת ירושלם וכל ארמנותיה שרפו באש וכל כלי מחמדיה להשחית: ס
כ) ויגל השארית מן החרב אל בבל ויהיו לו ולבניו לעבדים עד מלך מלכות פרס:
כא) למלאות דבר יקוק בפי ירמיהו עד רצתה הארץ את שבתותיה כל ימי השמה שבתה למלאות שבעים שנה: פ
כב) ובשנת אחת לכורש מלך פרס לכלות דבר יקוק בפי ירמיהו העיר יקוק את רוח כורש מלך פרס ויעבר קול בכל מלכותו וגם במכתב לאמר: ס
כג) כה אמר כורש מלך פרס כל ממלכות הארץ נתן לי יקוק אלהי השמים והוא פקד עלי לבנות לו בית בירושלם אשר ביהודה מי בכם מכל עמו יקוק אלהיו עמו ויעל:
And [the Babylonians] set fire to the House of God and broke down the walls of Jerusalem and all its palaces they burned with fire and all its precious vessels were destroyed. And those who survived the sword were exiled to Babylonia and they became slaves to them until the kingdom of Persia ruled. To fulfill the Word of God in the mouth of Jeremiah, until the Land is satisfied with its sabbaticals, all the days of destruction it rested, to fulfill seventy years. And in year one of Koresh, the king of Persia, to complete the Word of God in the mouth of Jeremiah, HaShem aroused the spirit of Koresh the king of Persia and he sent forth an announcement throughout all his kingdom and also in writing saying: Thus says Koresh, king of Persia: all the kingdoms of the earth have been given to me by HaShem, the God of Heaven, and He has charged me to build Him a House in Jerusalem in the region of Yehudah. Who among you from all His people – HaShem his God be with him, and let him go up!
The Tana”kh also ends with a destruction and clearing away, the terrible death and destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the exile of Israel for seventy years. Then comes the extraordinary call issued through Koresh, a divine call for that time that echoes through all time – a question and a challenge, the last words of the Tana”kh addressed to all of us and each of us who can hear them: who among you, from among all God’s people, feels moved by God, may God be with them – let them go up!
Do you hear that call in your heart? To go up, to start again, and again and again, “a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s,” to work to realize God’s vision for this world. Let’s go up!