Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah Commentaries

A section for posting commentaries from any source, as well as personal comments, about Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Torah Reading for Shemini Atzeret Shabbat.

35 thoughts on “Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah Commentaries

  1. Wendy Berk

    From reform

    The Story Doesn’t Change, But We Do
    Sh’mini Atzeret – Simchat Torah, Holidays Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12, Genesis 1:1–2:3


    During Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, our readings address both endings and beginnings.

    We first say goodbye to Moses. Our tradition teaches that because of a prior mistake, Moses is unable to enter the Promised Land:

    “Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Eternal showed him the whole land… And the Eternal said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.'”
    (Deuteronomy 33:1, 4)

    Although Moses is unable to enter Israel, God allows him to view the promised land from afar. In our midrashic tradition, we learn that Moses was also able to preview the entire history of the Jewish people:

    “The Holy One, blessed be God, showed Moses all that had been and all that was going to be. God showed him Samson arising from Dan, and Barak ben Avinoam [arising] from Naphtali. So also it was for every generation with its expounders, every generation with its judges, every generation with its leaders, every generation with its sages, every generation with its sinners, every generation with its righteous.”
    (Bamidbar Rabbah 23:5)

    What a beautiful sentiment! Moses, our greatest leader and teacher, would not be able to participate in the next phase of Jewish history, so God provided him with a gift – a vision of the good and the bad, the failings and the successes, and the highs and the lows of the Jewish people.

    On the other hand, how deeply troubling that Moses knew all that would befall the Jewish people. If these events were already foretold, what does that say about free choice? If history has already been written, why attempt to make this world a place of wholeness and peace?

    Each year, we read the same portions that we read the previous year (and the year prior to that). As a community, we never move on to Joshua, Judges, or Kings. After Deuteronomy is complete, we once again return to Genesis. Like Moses, we never enter the promised land.

    The creation story is one that many of us know well.

    “When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos and unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light!” – and there was light.”
    (Genesis 1:1-3)

    The stories that we’ll read in the year ahead are not new to us. If we already know what will befall the Jewish people, why bother reading these words again? If we already know the outcome, how can we make meaning from its words?

    Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches in “Kedushat HaLevi, Bereshit 3″ that the word ” bereshit” (in the beginning) can be divided into two words: bet reshit (“two beginnings”). Rabbi Yitzhak teaches that God provides us with two separate creations. One creation is our bounty, the gifts God gave to us like life, wisdom, and health. The other creation is what we create by using these gifts, through our words and our actions.

    Rabbi Yitzhak reminds us that our story is not foretold. Although Moses was given a glimpse of the future, he didn’t know all the twists and turns of what would truly befall our people. There is a story, but each one of us is in that story. We each have the capacity to use our gifts to change our world, moving it toward a better place.

    So, too, when we read the words of the Torah. The words of the Torah haven’t changed in millennia, but we have changed. Our perspective is different since last year. Our lived experience changes, as does our outlook, our understanding, and our connection to the text.

    As we begin a new year of reading Torah, may we recognize the many gifts that we each possess. Nothing is foretold; we have the capacity to change this world for the better. May we use our lived experience to make new meanings and gather new understandings from our sacred Torah.

  2. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

    A mezuzah in time
    Today we touch a mezuzah in time.
    Behind us: a road glittering with holy days.

    Look back over your shoulder and see
    a week in the sukkah, and before that

    the fierce intimacy of Yom Kippur,
    Rosh Hashanah’s gilded majesty, and

    before that the still waters of Elul,
    the grief and uplift of Tisha b’Av…

    Ahead: a fallow field scattered with leaves.
    Time to integrate our changes.

    Shemini Atzeret is a day for pausing,
    the silence after the chant.

    Today God asks us to linger a little longer.
    Seven days of Sukkot have ended, but God says,

    “won’t you stay in the sukkah with Me
    one more day, beloveds?” And we do.

  3. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Yoel Glick

    The Torah is a divine letter that the Source of All Life and Being has sent to us. All year round, we read and study that love letter and reflect on the meaning of its words, as we try to recover/evoke the wonderous memories of our first encounter with the supernal Beloved so long ago. On Simchat Torah, however, we no longer analyze our love letter and search for meaning. Instead, we delve within ourselves for a tangible experience of the One Who has written us the letter. Once we touch that sacred place, we then simply hold the letter in our arms and dance for joy.

    This Simchat Torah it is more important than ever for us of us to find our supernal Beloved. We have gone through so much and have so many unanswered questions that we are holding in our heart. It is time to ask ourselves why we have come into this world. It is time to take drastic action and redirect ourselves toward that which is Infinite and Eternal and will endure forevermore.

  4. Wendy Berk

    From JTS

    One Day More


    Of all of the holidays in the month of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret is the most puzzling. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the new year for the world, Yom Kippur focuses on atonement and forgiveness, Sukkot is about joy and vulnerability. Even Simhat Torah, which is not mentioned in the Bible, has a clear purpose and clear rituals. But if asked to explain the purpose of Shemini Atzeret, beyond having the opportunity to pray for rain for the coming season, most people would be hard pressed to articulate what, exactly, this eighth day does for us, for God, or for the world.

    This question is not a modern one. The Rabbis themselves offer various explanations for this mysterious holiday. Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in Leviticus 23:36, where the Torah says, “On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.” Rashi, commenting on this verse, explains that the word atzeret comes from the root atzer, which means “to hold back,” making this holiday the one of “holding back.” This “holding back” is not God’s remaining while we leave. Instead, God is asking us to remain in the holy space created by the month of Tishrei for an extra day, for one more moment. This is not because there are more things we have to do, but simply so we can be together, in God’s presence and with one another. Rashi, paraphrasing a gemara in BT Sukkah 55b, brings an analogy to understand the role of Shemini Atzeret:

    It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!” (Rashi on Lev. 23:36)
    The parable suggests that Shemini Atzeret is not primarily for us; rather, it is for God. We typically conceive of the month of Tishrei as being about ourselves. What are our goals for the coming year? How can we overcome our past failures, to ensure that we can do better in the future? What does it mean for us to confront the precariousness of our own existence and still experience deep happiness? When we spend time during this season considering our relationship with God, it’s often in terms of what God can do, or has done, for us. Shemini Atzeret offers something different. It’s about what we can do for God.

    Certainly, after the many days of holidays and hours in shul, Shemini Atzeret can feel almost excessive. Do we really need an extra day just because God wants us to stay close? Aren’t we offered the opportunity to be close every day? Whether through daily prayer, learning Torah, or performing mitzvot, we can always be acting with our relationship with God in mind. At the same time, though, this idea is so beautiful. God doesn’t need us to be close so we can pound our chests or wave our lulavim. God doesn’t need us to be close at all. God wants us to be close. How extraordinary that God, who shouldn’t need people at all, wants to be in relationship with the Jewish people, just for the sake of intimacy.

    This year, perhaps more than any other, the feeling of longing for each other’s company is deep, and yet that intimacy feels unattainable. Whereas I usually enter Shemini Atzeret exhausted from too much shul and too much deviation from routine, this year, I long to reenter that communal space, if only for one more day. As God longs for the Jewish people to remain in His company, if only for one more day, many of us long to be together, even though we know that for us to be safe, we must be apart. In that sense, Shemini Atzeret is the perfect holiday for this moment, for 2020, and for Tishrei 5781. Please, we say to each other. It is so hard for me to part from you. When we seek God, we do so without the expectation that we can see God. And so too now, when we seek each other, we have learned to trust that being in community can happen without being in physical proximity. May the day come soon when we can gather with each other, but until we can, Shemini Atzeret promises us that even when we are apart, we are still together.

  5. Wendy Berk

    From Rabbi Brant Rosen

    I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

    Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

    Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

    Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

    Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

    Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

  6. Wendy Berk

    From Kitka

    Geshem, Geshem

    גשם, גשם משמיים
    כל היום טיפות המים
    מחאו כף אל כף

    Geshem, geshem mishamaim
    Kol hayom tipot hamaim
    Makhau kaf el kaf

    Rain falls, Rain falls from the sky
    Drops of water all day long
    Drip, drop, drip, drop
    Clap your hands together!

  7. Wendy

    From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

    Simcha Torah

    By: Rabbi Adam Greenwald

    Two Stories of Time

    There are two, fundamental stories that one can tell about the nature of time:

    In the first, most common in the ancient world, time is envisioned as a vast, unbroken circle. The moon grows and shrinks with each passing month, and then does it again. The seasons progress on in an endless loop. Babies are born, old people pass away, and the babies themselves someday have babies and then grew old. What was once will inevitably be again. There is nothing new under the sun.
    The second story is the one primarily told by moderns: Time is a line, a sequence of events that make up a journey from one stage to the next. Woven into the concept of linear time is the notion of progress. If time is a circle then there is no possibility of progress, because every step that one takes along a circumference leads you closer to where you started. However, if time is a line – then history is the unfolding journey toward the present, and the present is perpetually giving way to the future. Put another way: The iPhone 11 follows the iPhone 10, and never the other way around. Optimists may side with Paul McCartney, who sang that “it’s getting better all the time.” Cynics may believe the opposite; that each generation (and each iPhone) grows steadily worse. But, both agree that time flows onward toward a world that is markedly different than the one that preceded it.
    Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle and its immediate restarting, captures elements from both stories. On one hand, Simchat Torah is all about circles. As soon as we complete the final reading from Deuteronomy, we roll the cylindrical scrolls back to the Beginning and start all over again. In celebration of this ritual, we dance seven hakafot, seven sacred circlings, in which we symbolize with our bodies the eternal process of reading and re-reading that has defined Jewish life for millennia. As the Talmud instructs, hafoch ba v’hafoch ba kula ba– we spend our Jewish lives turning the Torah over and over again, since everything is in it.
    However, the Torah that we celebrate on this day radically rejects the notion that time is a never-ending loop. It begins with the story of Creation – the affirmation that time has a definite beginning, endowed from the outset with a sense of purpose. Abraham sets out on a quest, leaving his past behind to forge a new faith. And, God’s greatest gift to the Jewish People is our liberation from slavery, leading to our exodus across a wilderness toward a new possibility. The narrative of the Torah disrupts the idea that what was once will always be, and instead tells our story as one of an ongoing journey from here to there, from darkness to light.
    Simchat Torah invites us not to choose one story of time or the other, but to recognize the truth in both. There is great comfort and meaning in returning to the same stories year after year. Yet, if we are listening to their message, we know that it is not sufficient to simply stay the same, like our ancestors we need to break out of old patterns in search for new truths; that we and our world ought to always be on a journey toward greater freedom. The readings stay the same, but we are meant to change, to strive, to grow. On Simchat Torah we affirm the truth of the circle and of the line, and rejoice in the coming together of both.

  8. Wendy

    From Rabbi Simon Jacobson

    Simchat Torah: Bizarre Journeys

    Inspiration from Simchat Torah Over a Century Ago

    Do you ever wonder about the bizarre twists and turns of your life’s journey? Why you had to endure various challenges, some of them seemingly quite unfair and overwhelming? Why do some of us have to suffer through impossible odds?
    Simchat Torah in Russia over 110 years ago (corresponding to October 12, 1906) the Rebbe Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab, delivered a historic talk about the mysterious passages of life.
    The Rebbe was addressing those Jews who were then being called up to the “priziv” – the compulsory draft into long term military service in the Russian Tsar’s army. This conscription was a dreaded prospect for Russian Jews who could anticipate particularly cruel treatment and not know whether they would ever return home.
    The draft would begin in the winter. Those due to be called up came to the Rebbe Rashab on Simchat Torah that year (1906) to receive his blessing.
    One of the draftees that year was Reb Shilem Kuratin (who was then a student in the Yeshiva, and would later become one of the head mashpiim, spiritual mentors). The Rebbe Rashab told him (translated from Yiddish):
    “Regardless, you will be released [from the draft]. But the “spark” of Tohu that needs to be refined by you has to travel through the district [of the government office where you are being drafted], in order that these “sparks” should also “agree” [to be refined].”
    A brief explanation of these terms: Tohu in Kabbalistic thought explains a fundamental cosmic dilemma: The root of all dissonance.
    Since Divine energy is the essence of all matter, how do we explain the fact that our material existence can be so detached, so far removed from its source? What process allowed for such a radical leap – from unity to fragmentation, from an integral seamlessness to a disjointed existence? Tohu – which means chaos – is a state of being in which the energy is too powerful for its containers, resulting in what is called the “breakage of the containers” (shevirat ha’keilim), giving birth to every form of dissonance.
    The purpose of this “explosion” however is not to create chaos, but to allow for an existence such as ours, in which we initially don’t feel our connection to our source and to our higher purpose, with the objective of bringing the Divine even into the darkest crevices, that deny the very existence of the Divine or even worse: replace it with a false god, so that they too should acknowledge the true nature of the Divine unity within all of existence.
    Translated into practical terms this means: We live in a world of contradictions. Every one of us experiences dissonance in our lives. This may manifest in the form alienation, confusion or anxiety. It may be rooted in your childhood experiences – growing up in a home full with contradictions: One moment you were loved, the other you were abandoned. Abuse of various sorts help feed the confusion. Or it may be rooted in the nature of existence, regardless of the people around us. One moment you may feel inspired, powerful; the next moment you feel weak, resigned.
    You may sometimes feel that you don’t belong. Not comfortable in your own skin. You want to be someone else. You may sense dichotomy in your life – a schism between your personal life at home and your professional life at work, a battle between your material need to survive and your spiritual need to transcend; between your higher ideals and the sad compromise of your standards.
    Who of us has no struggle? No inconsistencies?
    All this can either depress you, or… if you listen closely to the powerful words of the Rebbe Rashab stated a century ago, come to realize that all our schisms were meant to be: In order to allow the inner light to enter our fragmented existence, so that every aspect of our lives – even the disjointed and the chaotic – should also “agree” and accept the higher truth and purpose of our destinies.
    And this is what the Rebbe Rashab told his students 112 years ago: Don’t be afraid of the draft. Remember that its entire purpose is to bring you to a place where there are “sparks” for you to elevate that can be found only in that particular location.
    — I recall an interesting episode that took place back in 1990. My father was hospitalized for the High Holidays. On Erev Yom Kippur I went to see the Rebbe to receive a piece of “lekach” (sweet honey cake) and a blessing for my father. The Rebbe gave me a piece of cake, and said, smiling:
    “Gib dos dem taten un zog im, az er zol shoin farendiken zein shlichus in shpitol, vet men em fun dort ba’frayen [or: aroislozen?].” “Give this to your father and tell him that he should finish fulfilling his mission in the hospital, so he will be released from there…”
    G-d leads the footsteps of man. Wherever we travel, every journey we take, every experience we have – whether planned or not, whether pleasant or not – happens because we were led there by a higher force. You may think that you arrived somewhere due to your plans (business, vacation, personal), or by accident, or even against your will. In truth, you were led there to redeem “sparks” that are uniquely yours. Every place (physical or psychological) you have been too in your life offers you spiritual opportunities, that can help you grow and allow you to help others grow. Look for these opportunities, be open to the unexpected – and you’ll discover unimaginable results.
    A Rebbe’s words, especially on the momentous eventful night of Simchat Torah, carry layers of meanings, eternal messages that often can be appreciated many years later.
    The Rebbe Rashab’s words at the turn of last century were indeed prophetic. As difficult as the “priziv” may have been, the horrible places we would be forced to visit would only get worse as the century wore on. No one could ever have imagined what hellish abysses we would be thrown into first by Stalin and then by Hitler.
    Today in the 21st century, we are blessed to have survived the destruction. Indeed, we live in unprecedented freedom. But we have our own new set of bizarre journeys. Many of us have grown up in homes that were far from healthy. The dichotomies of our lives have hardly subsided. Some may even argue that material prosperity has brought upon us more inner misery. We have fancier houses but broken homes. We have amazing communication tools, but less intimate communication. More network connections, but weaker inner connections.
    Tells us the Rebbe Rashab – over one hundred years ago today – that wherever you go, as difficult as the journey may be, as strange your place may be, it is all for a higher purpose, for a deeper reason: For you to redeem the Divine sparks that can only be found in that dark place.
    Indeed, we now are ready to finish elevating the final “sparks” in existence, as the Rebbe Rashab continues in his Simchat Torah talk.
    Almost nothing is similar to life one hundred years ago. Yet, in some important ways not much has changed.
    The greatest peace of all is knowing that where you are at this precise moment and place is exactly where you belong.
    Let go of all and dance with that thought on Simchat Torah… and carry into the entire year.

  9. Wendy

    From Aryae

    Eighth Stop
    for Shemini Atzeret

    After the party
    when the guests have gone
    when the moon is smaller,
    when the sun is scarcer, the days shorter
    when my body won’t stop shivering
    even after I’ve buttoned my coat,
    it’s just us here.

    Darkness is coming quickly and I need to go.
    There’s work to be done.

    But first let’s stay a moment
    reflecting on the glory of all that has been
    and all that is.

    That way when I’m walking into darkness
    I can notice the light in the eyes of strangers
    recognize my brothers and sisters
    and find you there.

    And if someone needs a coat
    and I have the courage to offer mine
    please give us both a hug.

  10. Wendy

    From Rabbi Arthur Waskow

    Of the four references to the Festivals in the Chumash, two treat Shmini Atzeret as a separate holy day and two treat it as part of Sukkot. I think there is a profound point to this “now you see it now you don’;t.”

    Sukkot is the festival of abundance, fruitfulness, harvest. Shmini Atzeret is the Festival of seed — so tiny that “now you see it, now you don’t” — going underground for the next generation. There needs to be a festival of seed, of inwardness.

    Rosenzweig was inadequate when he said there were three festivals & three prayers: Creation,, Revelation, Redemption. He ignored the seed-sowing winter festival Shmini Atzeret and the night-time prayer Sukkat Shlomecha. (I would say, Birth, Covenant, Fulfillment — and Inward Reflection/ Sleep.)

    As Talmud taught, Shmini Atzeret is the winter festival (when seed is hidden, germinating) and would have been 7 weeks later as the other “Atzeret” — Shavuot — is from Pesach; but YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy One Who Interbreathes all life, blew gently, lovingly, in the ear of the Godwrestlers — If you wait 7 weeks, the roads will be deep in mud from My winter rains. It will be hard to come back to My Holy House. So do the winter festival right now, quick, and scamper home!”

  11. Wendy

    Living Lord,
    Open the store of heaven,
    Recall back your wind
    And let water drop.
    With rains of blessing
    Bless our community
    Trapped in sorrow
    Like a captured bird
    And with the righteousness of the Father of all
    We will prepare meals
    And say “Let a little water be brought” (Genesis 18:4)
    Remember your mercy, fashioner of luminaries
    Command the thick clouds to drip light
    For the merit of the king who was called “sweet singer” (Samuel 2 23:1)
    Who asked “Who will give me water to drink” (Samuel 2 23:15)
    With rains of blessing, bless our land
    With rains of song, let the land sing
    With rains of life
    Of blessing
    Of salvation…

  12. Wendy

    From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan

    Five Stages of Soul

    The Torah begins with the birth of the world. It ends with the death of Moshe. Between these two bookends, the Torah’s story unfolds. Explicitly, it’s the story of the early Israelite community. Implicitly, it’s also the story of a typical human developmental journey.

    You may know the Hebrew names of the five books of the Torah, and their literal translations: Bereisheet (Genesis): “By way of beginning.” Shemot (Exodus): “Names.” Vayikra (Leviticus): “God Called.” Bamidbar (Numbers): “In the Wilderness.” Devarim (Deuteronomy): “Revelatory Words.”

    With these names in mind, you could say that Torah takes us on a journey through the Five Stages of Soul:

    1. Beginning
    2. Finding Your Name
    3. God Calls
    4. Wandering in the Wilderness
    5. Revelatory Words

    The characteristics of each stage are expressed through the characters in each book. Our journey through the stages may not be linear, and it may span a lifetime. Still, each year, our journey through Torah’s offers an opportunity to reflect on our progress.

    “Beginning” (Bereisheet/Genesis): represents our earliest years. Usually, our lessons are learned in family or in other familiar close-knit groups. We experience conflict, jealously, and impulsivity, which gradually give way to maturity, humility, and the ability to seek or offer forgiveness. And at the end of this youthful period, we venture out of our earliest home.

    “Finding Your Name” (Shemot/Exodus): In this young adult stage, we experience ambivalence about who we are and who we want to be. Do we want freedom – or not? Do we believe we have the strength to succeed – or not? Do we connect with God – or not? Are we grateful for the blessings we have received – or not? Towards the end of this stage, ambivalence is overcome, a house is built, and the peace of God dwells within us.

    “God Calls” (Vayikra/Leviticus): We have mastered many of the rituals and routines of adult life. We learn how to support others, in sorrow, in joy, through healing journeys and through practical problems. Through our own ups and downs, we learn the value v’ahavtah l’reiacha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). We observe the blessings that flow from this love and the curses that spread in its absence.

    “Wandering in the Wilderness” (Bamidbar/Numbers): Life is good: your inner tribes are in order, your inner gifts are flowing, you know your true inner name. But suddenly, you may have a dramatic change of health, family, or work — and all the chaos of early childhood comes up again! You would love to find your way out of this cacophony to a land flowing with milk and honey, but you need courage, leadership and calm. Finally, parts of yourself that had been suppressed may begin to speak. And you may find psychic room for a greater, more complex self.

    “Revelatory Words” (Devarim/Deuteronomy): a life review. You affirm some of the principles you live by and revisit your memories. You imagine the world of the future, filled with challenges for your students, children, and younger friends. You pass on your wisdom. You have met God in your deepest self panim el panim — face to face or interior to interior — and you have grown (Deuteronomy 34:10).

    Blessings as you continue your journey this year!

  13. Wendy

    From JTA

    Why Shemini Atzeret is the pinnacle of the High Holidays season

    By Sarah Chandler

    Praying for rain tends not to be at the top of the to-do lists for most Jews.
    Jews at Shemini Atzeret pray for rain — the right amount of rain. You might not know it, but Shemini Atzeret is the pinnacle of the High Holidays season. Not Rosh Hashanah, when our fates for the year are traditionally written, nor Yom Kippur, when they are sealed. Shemini Atzeret, the oft-forgotten coda that comes at the end of the Sukkot festival, trumps them all.

    That’s not just my opinion. The rabbis and ancient Israelites knew it, too.

    According to the agrarian roots of the Jewish calendar, the date of Shemini Atzeret is timed to the start of the rainy season in Israel. In the holiday’s musaf (additional) service, we recite Tefillat Geshem, the prayer for rain, in which we ask God not only for rain but for the right amount of rain — “livracha velo liklala” (for a blessing and not a curse); rain that will sustain a people with fertile crops, not drown them in torrential floods.

    Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur merely functioned as preparation for this precarious time. In the Yom Kippur Avodah service, the following prayer of the high priest is recited: “When the world is in need of rain, do not permit the prayers of the travelers with regard to rain to gain entrance before You.”

    The prayers and sacrifices of the High Holidays were meant to prove our worth so that the harvest season continued smoothly and we merited rain once it was time to plant again. In ancient times, Sukkot opened with a water-drawing ritual, which by pouring out the remains of last year’s water symbolized faith that the coming year’s rains would fall just in time. Today we still beat willow branches on the last day of Sukkot, Hoshanna Rabba, pleading for salvation in the form of rain. Then, having completed a full week of waving the four species on Sukkot — each of which requires a significant amount of water to produce — we set it down and wait for the ultimate judgment.

    It makes sense that Diaspora Jews tend not to focus on the agricultural roots of the High Holidays. As citizens of an industrialized society, praying for rain tends not to be at the top of our to-do lists. Most of us simply take it for granted that substantial food will be shipped in from wherever it can grow.

    Theologically, we’ve moved away from this as well. Most contemporary religious ideologies no longer equate following God’s laws with receiving enough rain for our crops to survive. The Reform movement has even removed from its prayer books the second paragraph of the Shema, which links observance of the commandments to the provision of rain, to make the bold statement that as modern Jews we do not believe we can influence God to change the weather.

    And yet, scientific research increasingly points to the fact that human actions can have an effect on the climate — and, in turn, the weather. Moreover, no matter how technologically advanced our society becomes, life as we know it will continue to depend on sufficient rainfall.

    And so we should continue to say Tefillat Geshem — not because we believe that fasting and chest pounding will bring rain, but because it reminds us of the delicate balance necessary for life to thrive on this planet.

    Our petitions to God are more than requests to act on our behalf. A responsible, modern religious ethos serves two seemingly contradictory functions: On the one hand, our request that God reward our weeks of repentance with the blessing of rain affirms our lack of dominion; on the other, calling out to God implores us to act by reminding us of our responsibilities.

    In modern times, we need both scientists and activists telling us what to do as well as the faith that there are systems beyond our control. It is both a recognition and a release of our power.

    A renewed recognition of ancient Judaism’s relationship to the earth has great potential to bring us closer to the rhythms of the seasons and, in turn, can lead to a more sustainable future for the planet.

    The countdown to Shemini Atzeret can be an awakening for us to recognize the sanctity of our planet’s resources. Through honoring this often overlooked day, by calling out loud that rain should fall, we ask that our community be aligned with the natural cycles of the earth — for blessing and not for curse.

    (Sarah Chandler is the manager of Farm Forward’s Jewish outreach campaign, which supports Jewish organizations in promoting conscientious food choices, reducing farm animal suffering and advancing sustainable agriculture. She previously was the director of the earth-based spiritual practice at Hazon’s Adamah Farm.)

  14. Wendy

    From Rabbi Diane Elliot

    Simkhat Torah: Between the End and the Beginning

    Last week, on the holiday of Simkhat Torah, coming at the very end of the harvest festival of Sukkot, I found myself at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California, between two Torah scrolls laid out on the lectern. The scroll to my right was rolled to the very end of the Torah, the one to my left to the very beginning. I leaned forward in between them, surrounded by the powerful energy of these ancient words, hand-calligraphed onto parchment, and spoke about endings and beginnings. It was my honor to call people up for the reading of the very end of the scroll, performed every year in our community by Cantor Linda Hirschhorn. In a liturgical tour de force, she chants each verse with a different trope, the melodies used traditionally to chant sacred Jewish scriptures. When she comes to the very end, she takes a very deep breath and chants the last verse of Deuteronomy and the first verse of Genesis on one long exhale. Below is my drash (Torah exposition) and call to the community to “rise up” to the Torah. I was blessed to have input from my friend and colleague Latifa Kropf, who shared with me R. David Ingber’s recorded commentary on the death of Moses.

    “V’zot ha-brakhah, and this is the blessing…” We are about to lose Moses, Moshe, the quintessential figure who has guided us through so much of our Torah-year. Reluctant leader, radiant communer with the Divine, narrator and central figure of so much of our Torah story, Moses ascends to the heights, is held deep in the heart of G~d, touched by the Divine voice, the Divine hand, then shuttles back to earth to care for and contain and cajole an errant, fearful, often confused people, sprung unripe into freedom, struggling to understand their place in the world and to shoulder the responsibilities and unfurl the joys of serving the Holy.

    That people is us; we surely are that people, as much as the Israelites ever were, needing guidance, needing wisdom, needing at times to have our hands held or some sense shaken into us. We’ve moved through the Days of Awe, stood before the seat of judgment, hoping to exchange it for the seat of mercy. We’ve prayed to peel back the husks, to reveal a clearer, more congruent version of our lives. We’ve sought to unknot the fisted places in our hearts, and we’ve sat in our rickety, impermanent sukkah shelters, leafy boughs above our heads, pinpoints of stars above the boughs, the sweet smell of autumn harvest–pri etz hadar, beautiful, fragrant fruits—in our nostrils, feeling a bit more at peace with our humanness, our frailty, our less than perfect world.

    And now here we are, dancing with the Torah, Moshe’s chef-d’oeuvre, whirling in joy, suffused with a love we can hardly contain or name—knowing, all the while, that we’re about to lose Moshe himself.

    Doesn’t it seem strange, sad, oddly unsatisfying that at the end of his Torah, Moshe just disappears, like a magician in a puff of smoke? Vanishes between Shabbats, when no one is looking, when we’re all caught up in joyful dancing and release, with no special Shabbat dedicated to the mourning his passing? Maybe it’s just too much in this z’man simkhateynu, the harvest season of our joy, to face the loss of the greatest wisdom figure within our sacred mythology, this humble companion and fierce guide who walks us through so many parshiot. Or maybe it’s hard, so soon after Yom Kippur, to be reminded of the end we humans all must face, cut off at what must always seem midstream, just short of our promised lands.

    But perhaps there’s a deeper wisdom here, a profound wisdom about the cyclic nature of life on earth and our humanity, the circlings, the hakafot that connect beginnings to endings and ends to beginnings. Moshe has lived 120, twice 60 years, double samekh. Samekh, the Hebrew letter that has a value of 60, is a symbol of wholeness, of completion—a simple round circle, closed, complete, empty, the end present in the beginning, the beginning implicate in the end. One circle of Moshe’s life is lived in unconscious privilege, in palatial insulation in Mitzrayim, Egypt. A second circle—his mid-life career transition, you might say—is spurred by a sudden awakening to the plight of his enslaved people, and thrusts him into harsh truths of wilderness and human nature, as he struggles through wars, disbelief, cynicism, hunger, and fear to guide an unknowing multitude into the Unknown—protected, guided only by the Invisible Nameless…. two distinct yet interdependent samekh’s, two cycles of fullness, emptiness, completion

    Maybe this is what all our dancing is about—not to deny loss and death, but to joyfully embrace the whole cycle of living and dying, the beginnings in the endings, the endings in beginnings. Rabbi David Ingber has taught that the Torah’s beginning with a Bet, the second letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, points to a missing, mysterious Aleph, of which we can know nothing. This silent Aleph precedes the Bet of B’reishit and is the ground of Creation, and it is into this Aleph that Moses, kissed by G~d, sinks, disappears—not into nothingness, but into the deep, high, wide, mysterious, unknowable Aleph from which the whole story, the whole cosmos springs. There in the Garden, the snake, the first human beings, the Tree, the Flood, the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, this whole world of Ever-Arising Beingness, is Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses our Teacher, whispering, shouting, laughing, crying, teaching—anticipating his own re-birth.

    In the beginning, writes the poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo,

    where I was touched by G~d,

    before my tongue had word,

    before my mind had thought,

    there, in the fire I still carry,

    the mind and heart are one.

    This aliyah is for those who wish to learn, along with Moshe and with Linda, to embrace every trope of Torah in the Great Yeshiva of living and dying. It’s for those willing to enter the unknown and unknowable, to join heart and mind within the Great Aleph that births Creation, and fueled with the faith and humility of Moses, to traverse endings and beginnings with hope, with trust, and with a deep love for all that humans aspire to. Yamdu, yamdu, yamdu….rise up, rise up, rise up!

  15. Wendy

    From Rabbi Yoel Glick

    Praying for Heavenly Rain

    R. Assi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And the earth brought forth grass, referring to the third day, whereas another verse when speaking of the sixth day says: No shrub of the field was yet in the earth. This teaches us that the plants commenced to grow but stopped just as they were about to break through the soil, until Adam came and prayed for rain for them; and when rain fell they sprouted forth. This teaches you that the Holy One, blessed be He, longs for the prayers of the righteous.

    Talmud Chulin 60B

    The holydays of the month of Tishri are the spiritual highpoint of the Jewish year. They provide spiritual intensity, personal transformation and the experience of ecstatic joy. By the time we reach Shemini Atzeret, it has become clear to us that we cannot live without inspiration: we need this higher input in our lives as surely as our lungs need air to breathe.

    This is the spiritual truth behind the above midrash about Adam Rishon. We are the seeds planted in the earth of this physical plane of consciousness. We cannot grow and truly become alive until heavenly rain starts to fall to nourish our souls.

    This truth does not come as an automatic realization. As the midrash points out, the earth and all of the plant life existed in potential waiting to sprout forth, but nothing could happen until humanity began to pray. Similarly, we are here on earth and have infinite potential inside us, but it cannot be fulfilled until we realize that we are more than animal creatures – until we realize that we have a soul that needs to be nourished and fed.

    Once this awareness dawns upon us, then we begin to pray for rain. We begin to pray for living waters to fall from heaven to nourish the parched earth of our being/spirit. And once the rain begins to fall, a multitude of living things burst forth into our lives. We come alive with light and joy and love. We become alive with a constant stream of creativity where new ideas and creations pour forth from us into the world. And the deeper our prayer, the more abundant the heavenly down-pouring will be.

    On the most profound level, the down-pouring is represented by the words of Torah that we receive – the words of wisdom and inspiration that flow from us and that we bring into the world.

    Rav Kook teaches that a chidush Torah, a new Torah insight, is not just a personal intellectual flash of insight, it is the revelation of a whole world, the creation of a new heavens and a new earth. This great spiritual light that flashes in the soul, contains hidden within it, all of the radiance of the light of the supernal letters that created the world. To reveal the full light of the letters with all their vowels and taagim takes profound prayer and kavanah of the heart directed to our Father in Heaven.

    The Torah itself can be understood as a tremendous downpour of heavenly rain. A spiritual monsoon that flooded into the hearts and minds of the Jewish people 3500 years ago. This downpour has watered our hearts and minds ever since that time.

    On the other hand, the words given at Sinai have lost their spiritual potency in our consciousness from time to time over the millennia. We, as a people, have experienced periods of spiritual drought. But the greater miracle is that these droughts do not last for long. Soon God sends down great souls with new words of inspiration to illuminate the Torah in whole new ways – to take the ancient teachings and reveal the wisdom hidden within them in ideas and concepts that is meaningful and relevant to our time.

    Each year, we pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret. Each year we receive new inspiration to guide and uplift us for the coming year.

    This is the unique holiness of Simchat Torah. We dance with joy that God cares about us – that He/She has not abandoned us alone in this world – that the Eternal One reaches across the abyss of time and space to communicate with us – that we have been given the tools and the skills to be able to receive and understand His/Her words.

    We have been given the gift of seeking and searching. We have been given the blessing of discontent with superficial existence and material living. We have been forced by the character of life in this world and the yearnings of our soul to seek out answers to life’s mysteries and challenges. We have been given the joy of yearning for the heavenly rain.

    This year, let us pray for rain with the profound longing of Adam Rishon. Let us dance holding on to the Torah with living faith and transcendent bliss. Let us celebrate our extra day in the presence of the Sovereign of Sovereigns, exclaiming that God is real and life has a higher purpose and meaning.

    copyright © 2014, by Yoel Glick

  16. Wendy

    From Kol Aleph

    A prayer for rain by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan

    Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of the festival of Sukkot, marks the beginning of winter on the Jewish calendar. At this time of year, we pray for a compassionate allocation of water. Not too much, not too little. Traditional piyyutim (liturgical poems) recall the role of water in the lives of our male ancestors. This one focuses on our female ancestors.

    Remember Sarah, who with Avraham crossed rivers of water
    Mother of all, her milk flowed out like water
    Teacher of all, her radiance rained like water
    For Sarah’s sake, do not withhold water!

    Remember Rivkah, who found her future by the water
    With lovingkindness she nourished animals with water
    Taught her sons to cook meat and soup with water
    For Rivkah’s sake, grant the gift of water!

    Remember Leah and Rachel, expert women of birthing waters
    How Leah cried, expressing fears through water
    How Rachel cries, as she pleads in heaven with tears of water
    For Leah and Rachel’s sake, do not withhold water!

    Remember Miriam, mistress of the waters
    She saved her brother’s life while watching at the water
    She brought her people hope, reviving them with water
    For Miriam’s sake, grant the gift of water!

  17. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

    The sweetness of honey; the gates, open
    Posted: 27 Sep 2014 08:16 AM PDT
    As a child, I loved being able to drizzle my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey. I remember eating leftover challah toast with honey on the mornings right after the holiday. The golden honey pooling on the rich white bread always seemed deliciously decadent, especially in our Pritikin household. I knew that the honey was a kind of prayer — “sweet foods for a sweet year.” (That’s what’s behind the custom of dipping apples or challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah.)

    But I thought that was a one-time thing. Honey on challah, honey on apples: we ate those on the holiday itself, and then maybe for a few days until the Rosh Hashanah challot were nothing but crumbs. I didn’t learn until I was in my mid-thirties that there are customs of continuing to eat honey on one’s challah, and praying for a year of sweetness, until Shemini Atzeret.

    Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the eighth day.” It’s the 8th day of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when (tradition says) after we’ve lived seven days in our sukkot, God murmurs “this has been so sweet; don’t go yet; linger just a little longer?” So we stick around and celebrate one more day of festival together. And though we read during the closing service of Yom Kippur that “the gates (of repentance) are closing,” some hold that they remain open until we reach Shemini Atzeret. Hence the tradition of continuing to put honey on our challah all the way until then.

    I love the feeling of urgency which comes during the last service of Yom Kippur. The day is almost over; the long day of fasting and prayer and song is almost gone; and what has it gained me? Have I gone deep enough into the liturgy and into my own heart and soul? Is it going to change me? I want to be compassionate and kind to everyone I meet, I want to be mindful — but have I done the inner work I need to do? The gates are closing, the liturgy tells us. The day is passing. We pray the whole closing service with the doors of the aron kodesh, the holy ark which contains our Torah scrolls, open to remind us that the gates are open and the way to God is open. The sun goes and turns. Let us enter Your gates!

    I appreciate that urgency. (I think I need it. Every year when we reach Ne’ilah, that closing service, it lifts me to a place I couldn’t have reached otherwise.) But I also appreciate the teaching that the gates remain open during this whole holiday season — that we can still sweeten our bread with honey, an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come, until Sukkot is drawing to its close. Even after the dramatic end of Yom Kippur with its long and piercing tekiah gedolah, the gate of teshuvah (repentance / return) remains open to us.

    When we make teshuvah, we sweeten the year to come. Not because we gain any control over what’s ahead, but because we’ve created a shift in ourselves which will allow us to experience more sweetness. That’s the message I hear in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we sing on the days of awe each year. Who will be contented, and who will be restless? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? We can’t know what the new year will hold. But when we practice teshuvah, tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (giving to others), we can ameliorate whatever is to come, because we create change in ourselves. We can’t change what will be, but we can change how we experience whatever comes our way.

    Of course, teshuvah doesn’t happen only during this time of year. Teshuvah can be an every day journey, an every-week journey, an every-month journey. And I believe that God is always waiting with open arms, ready to welcome us with love, any time we turn away from our misdeeds and try to orient ourselves in the right direction again. Our liturgy teaches that “we are loved by unending love,” and that’s always true, not only during the holidays.

    So what does it mean to say that the “gates” are open, or closing, or closed? Maybe the gates are our own. Maybe they are the gates of the season. Once we make it to the end of Sukkot, we will be spiritually worn-out from the intense emotions and intensive holiday journey of this time of year. We will need to close the door on this chapter and move into what’s coming. We can’t live all year in this state of heightened intensity. We are the ones who close the gates.

    The gates which are now open are the gates of our hearts and souls. What do we want to draw forth from ourselves as we move through these gates? When the time comes for us to close the gates on this season, who do we want to have become?

  18. Wendy

    From Brian Yoseph Schachter-Brooks

    You know, the mind is usually more concerned with That than with This. It likes to have something to be interacting with, manipulating, probing, noodling on, obsessing about, giving importance to. It likes to refer outside to what it imagines to be “Over There”. Tonight begins the greatest Jewish holiday, Shmini Atzeret. All the other holidays capitalize on the obsessive grasping of the mind’s need for constant entertainment and stimulation. They give you stories, symbols, rituals and endless references to references to references. But tonight, on Shmini Atzeret, there is Nothing. It doesn’t “mean” anything. It just is dwelling in the glow of the holy- undivided, unnamed, relaxed in the reception of what blossoms forth, moment by moment. So, no matter who you are, tonight I wish you a remembrance of the liberating Nothing, the Space which is fullness and unbroken completeness. DOG THE SHMINI Y’ALL!!!

  19. Wendy

    From Rabbi Yoel Glick

    The Hebrew month of Tishri is permeated with a feeling of holiness. The Holydays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot take us out of the drudgery of our mundane routine and lift our lives onto a higher dimension. The more we become immersed in this atmosphere of holiness, the more our daily struggles and material ambitions seem to recede into the distance. By the time we reach Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot, the thought of returning to our normal lives is unbearable. All that we want to do is be with God, to bask in the radiance of the Divine presence and dwell in the consciousness of the higher worlds.
    This spiritual longing is symbolized by the prayer for rain that we recite on the holyday of Shemini Atzeret. This prayer is a heartfelt call for the “heavenly waters of Divine inspiration” to fall upon us and quench our inner thirst. It is this longing for spiritual watering that lies at the heart of this holyday and is, in fact, the only reason that it exists.

  20. Wendy

    From Wendy

    Simchat Torah

    It was hard for me to leave the sukkah this year. Perhaps it was due to increased stress at work or the unsettling recent political news. Rabbi Eliezer, who lived in the 1st century CE, said that the sukkah represents the Clouds of Glory which accompanied us in the desert. For me the sukkah felt like a little bit of the Garden of Eden, a place to feel held, to breathe, and feel some cleansing. This is how I felt when I waved the lulav.

    So here’s where Simchat Torah comes in. It reminds me that it is time to start a new cycle in the world. Time to leave the Garden of Eden again. On Simchat Torah, we start to read Bereshit (Genesis) where Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden. But this time, we don’t leave in fear and apprehension. We leave holding the Torah, dancing.

  21. Wendy

    From Rabbi Shalom Bochner

    A Simchat Torah Message by Rabbi Shalom Bochner, CNS Director of Lifelong Learning
    A Simchat Torah Message
    Rabbi Shalom Bochner, CNS Director of Lifelong Learning

    If you are only going to observe one Jewish holiday, which one should it be? For me, the answer is Simchat Torah. While my favorite holiday is Sukkot without any doubt, Simchat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It has three basic ingredients: Jews, celebration and Torah. There are no special supplies, other than flags. (Why are there flags anyway?!). There are no special foods to prepare or eat, no 25 hour endurance challenges without food, no strange sounds to make on animal horns, no all-night study sessions, and no days to count towards. This party is fully accessible; we don’t encounter Torah as teachings or detailed instructions on Simchat Torah, we encounter it in pure joy, as a dance partner, in a timeless dance for everyone. On Simchat Torah we don’t need to build a fort in our backyard and we don’t need to search and destroy small pieces of bread crumbs. On Simchat Torah we just need to dance.

    On Simchat Torah we shmooze, and make l’chaims, but not after the Services, during the Service! This is not a Bat/Bar Mitzvah followed by the party; we are all the Bar/Bat Mitzvah boy/girl and the party is the Service. On Simchat Torah we behave like we are at a wedding. On Simchat Torah we marry the Torah.

    This is the one holiday that requires nothing other a spirit of happiness and a surrender to the crowd’s energy and melodies. This is a holiday that requires no dress code, no preparation, no knowledge, and no tutorials. Come and be happy as we complete the reading of the Torah and immediately start it over again. Join us as we dance, sing, clap, jump, and smile as we celebrate who we are: happy Jews. Be with us as we connect with our ancestors and our descendants. Celebrate one more time. The next yomtov is not until Passover and even Chanukah is more than two months away. Don’t worry about proper decorum; don’t worry at all. Just be happy. Simchat Torah – our only holiday with the word joy in the title and the only holiday with Torah in the title.

    Can any holiday function on its own? No, they are all connected to each other as we are all connected. Celebrating just one hour of a holiday won’t make any sense, but then again, does Simchat Torah really make sense anyway? Sometimes it’s not about making sense. If you are looking for one hour that shows you the depth, the lightness, the craziness, the intensity, the community, the love, the excitement and the happiness that is the essence of Judaism, this may be the hour for you.

  22. Wendy

    From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan

    Shemini Atzeret
    Pausing for Love (2009/5770)

    Shmini Atzeret was invented as a kind of Shabbat. The Torah introduces the holiday saying, “on the eighth day, you shall have an azeret, do not do any work.” Here Torah uses atzeret, a pause, as a partial synonym for Shabbat. Shmini Atzeret is a day to pause. If you celebrate the fall festivals fully, that is exactly how you experience Shmini Atzeret. You’ve done intensive self-examination at the High Holidays, and intensive celebration at Sukkot, and now you are exhausted. So you relax and enjoy a holiday with few special rituals.

    The Talmud puts another spin on the idea of Shmini Atzeret as a time to pause. Talmud says that during the week of Sukkot, 70 animals were offered at the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple), representing the 70 nations of the world. This universal offering symbolizes the teaching of the prophet Zechariah, who says that the Temple in Yerushalayim is open to everyone of every nation, and of every religious tradition.

    But on Shmini Atzeret, Talmud says, there is only one offering. This offering is made is on behalf of those who are actually still at the Temple at the end of Sukkot, those who are lingering, out of love for tradition, Torah, and God. About this offering, Rabbi Elazar says, “It is like a parable of a king who said to his servants, ‘make for me a great feast.’ On the last day he said to his lover, ‘Make for me a small feast so that I may derive pleasure from you, and with you – just the two of us’.”

    Think about what that might mean for you in your own spiritual language: “Just the two of us.” Make time for the feast.

  23. Wendy

    From Rabbi Yolles

    Chag Sameach and Shana Tova,
    We have experienced this season of inspiring and penetrating times, beginning with the first of Elul through Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, and the first days of Zman Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing – Sukkot, which nears its conclusion also with a special and unique Yom Tov of Simchat Torah this coming Tuesday.
    On Simchat Torah we rejoice with HaShem’s Torah, and in a very inspiring and connecting manner we dance with the Torah. On Simchat Torah, it’s not an intellectual connection that Yiden use with HaShem’s Torah, but a unique and penetrating experience of dancing with the Torah.
    In other words, the Jewish neshama becomes united with the Holy Torah and its Giver and this connection brings out true rejoicing, inner simcha which has no bounds.
    And this unity with HaShem’s Torah is the source of power that will bring out the awareness of our serving HaShem, of our being servants of HaShem, motivated to truly serve HaShem – This is ultimate happiness – Simcha.
    We should see all of us together with the fullest brachot of HaShem. We should see each other for many happy years.
    Happy New Year.
    Hershel Yolles

  24. Wendy


    By Rabbi Jill Hammer

    I have on rare occasions stayed in bed during Yom Kippur because of the flu, but I have never in my adult life missed the festival of Simchat Torah. I have danced with the Torah in student chapels, in formal synagogues, in seminaries, on streets in New York and Boston and Jerusalem. To join a dance circle, I have leaned out over balconies, run down stairs, crept through crowds, and scrambled around parked cars. Simchat Torah is the holiday I look forward to all year – not only because of its celebration of joy, motion, and music, but because its celebration of God as a changemaker.

    Simchat Torah celebrates the moment when Jews complete the reading of the Torah and begin it again. As a Jew seeking to make Judaism more inclusive of previously silenced voices, for me Simchat Torah celebrates the possibility of rereading the Torah in a new way. Simchat Torah allows us to literally start over, moving in a circle from the farewell of Moses the lawgiver to the beginning of a new creation. Though the words of the Torah are always the same, Simchat Torah reminds us that as we change, our interpretations too may change. Our new commentaries become part of our people’s long-standing conversation with God. Each new person added to the circle makes the Torah grow.

    “Turn it and turn it,” says Pirkei Avot, “for everything is in it.” Many of us struggle to maintain the faith that if we keep looking in the Torah, we will find truths that speak to us in spite of the pain the text may sometimes cause us. Simchat Torah is a time to strengthen ourselves in that endeavor and remind ourselves of our continuing commitment. In my own understanding, Simchat Torah is a time when God makes the Torah new for all the old and new souls who will meet Torah that year.

    Here is a prayer to be recited by an individual or community at the time that the Torah is lifted, or before one’s own personal aliyah:

    Makor hachayim, bechol shanah veshanah ata noteh banu etz chayim chadash. Yehi ratzon milifanecha shehashanah midrasheinu yifr’chu chesed ve’lo achzarut, chochmah velo k’silut, tevunah velo kalut rosh. Lamdeinu Torat chesed she’taachilenu bayamim haba’im uvechol sha’ah. Amen.

    Source of Life, every year you plant within us a new tree of life. May it be your will that this year our interpretations will blossom forth kindness and not cruelty, wisdom and not foolishness, awareness and not thoughtlessness. May you teach us a Torah of love that will nourish us in the coming days at every hour. Amen.

    Or try this: During the hakafot, ask to dance with a Torah. Let your dance be a reflection of the new wisdom you want to receive in the coming year.

    Simchat Torah is also a symbolic move from death to life – the death of Moses and of the old year, the birth of the new year and the newly created plants, animals, and humans. It is the rebirth of the Torah. That makes Simchat Torah a good time to celebrate all renewals and transformations. If you have experienced a major change during the year, such as the loss of a loved one or a relationship, a wedding, conversion, coming out, or birth of a child, you can recite the following prayer as the Torah scroll used for Deuteronomy is exchanged for the Torah scroll used for Genesis (or as the Torah scroll is rolled from one place to another).

    K’shem shehaTorah niglelet mimakom lemakom besimcha uveshalom, ken eglol mimakom lemakom berachamim uve’ratzon.

    Just as the Torah is rolled from place to place amid joy and peace, so too may I roll from place to place surrounded by compassion and good will.

    Used by permission of the author

  25. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


    From the heights of Yom Kippur we fall
    into the embrace of a world that shakes,
    structures so airy and light
    they don’t hide the autumn gold
    of Berkshire hills, the white press of sky.
    Funny to think of dwelling in this house:

    hardly enough wall to call it a house,
    these two-by-fours we hope won’t fall,
    roof of cornstalks open to the sky
    rattling when the wind makes them shake.
    Around me the trees are strung tinsel-gold.
    I inhabit bright blocks of light.

    After these holidays my soul feels light.
    I asked to dwell in God’s house
    all the days of my life; received gold
    fields shorn to stubble, apples fallen
    sweet when the trunk gets a shake.
    Always perfect, always changing, the sky

    rolls back day before darkness, sky
    over this little house bedecked with light.
    I gather willow, myrtle, palm; shake
    them clasped with etrog, the house
    for that tiny nugget of tart fall
    wrapped in nubbly fragrant gold.

    It’s the eighth day of festival. I shake
    to think of God pleading “don’t go.” Golden
    is our time together in this house,
    talking face-to-face beneath the sky.
    My tallit skirts my shoulders, light
    as cornsilk. The leaves fall

    as birch and maple shake.
    Time to ask for rain from the desert sky,
    changing our prayers with the city of gold
    where the limestone pinks with early light,
    where once upon a time we built God’s house
    and learned all things must fall.

    I shake my lulav beneath the cloudy sky,
    bless the One Who creates this gold light
    Whose house is in my heart this fall.

  26. Wendy

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman

    Beginning and End Sept 2010

    This is the beginning and the end
    As if linear does not apply
    A circle a cycle a spiral –

    We ascend with the end
    We begin
    The end implies the beginning
    By the beginning we are not naïve to the end.

    Ouroboros, the self-devouring serpent
    By Plato the first living being [Timaeus, 33]
    Turn it and turn it
    For everything is contained within
    – Yochanan Ben Bag Bag [Avot 5:22]
    Who knew the chambers of the Torah. [Tosefta Ketuvim 5:1]

    There is a life force
    A point existing within each thing
    A sign of divine origin
    When you attach to this point
    You become partners in creation
    It is generative. [Sefat Emet on Genesis]
    Ha-chayot she-m’cha-yeh chol davar
    The life force that enlivens every living thing
    the soul of every living being.

    Attach to it
    Ha-adam ha-di-buk b’ne-ku-dah zeh
    Become glued to it.

    When we meet
    We are so bonded
    In the deepest place
    No beginning no end –

    All center
    All circle.

    jsg, usa

  27. Wendy

    From Reb Zalman

    “It was in 1975, the time when we came to live in Philadelphia, having moved from Manitoba. It was at that time, that I decided to spend Simchat Torah in a way in which we would celebrate according to the basic teachings of the Kabbalah about the seven dances.

    “Preceding Simchat Torah is the seven-day holiday of Sukkot. Each day of Sukkot, we go around with the Lulav and the Etrog / date palm bundle and citron circling the Torah reading tables, and praying the Hosha’not / Salvations and ecological prayers. Each day is another round beginning on the first day with Chessed / Loving-kindness moving to Malkhut / Kingship on the last day, Hosha’ana Rabbah / The Great Please Save day.

    “There was something about sacred ritual dances that I had experienced before that time, in contrast to the exuberant dances of abandon of the Hasidim on Simchat Torah. They were dances that had been different: More sober and focused. I’m referring to the Planet Walks designed by Murshid Samuel Lewis ob”m based upon some Sufi teachings.

    “I noticed that the way in which one walked to Mercury was different than the way in which one walked to Jupiter, etc. And corresponding to our seven lower Sefirot, he also had dances based on Wazifa’s Divine attributes expressed in Divine epithets, like Rahim / Compassionate, Akbar / Greater, Rahman / Merciful, Mansur / Victorious, Jamil / Majestic, Wadud / Loving and Malik / Sovereign. The dancing required a great deal of awareness and shifts in attitude and affect. The way one moved the body was matched to the way one wanted to view the universe.

    “This was what I wanted to try to bring into Simchat Torah in 1975. It was already indicated by the rubrics of the prayers, but I had never seen people actually paying attention to them in the way in which they did the dances.

    “I first reached out to a colleague who promised that he would choose melodies to fit the sefirot – it did not happen. When I brought the idea to that first group on Simchat Torah and we began to dance, I could see that it was hard for them to get out of their habits of just dancing in the wild way which they had been accustomed to traditionally.

    “I subsequently invited a group of people to come to Fellowship House Farm and to work on a full understanding of the Sefirot and how they would be expressed in the way in which we would walk and dance, and in the melodies, and in the colors of the lighting. Eventually, we were able to come to create walks and dances, with more focus on the specific Sefira: There was flowing music for Chessed or rhythmic and vigorous music for Gevurah; expansive with broad music for Tiferet, a march for Netzach, a flowing lento for Hod, rhythmic and a melodious tune with a throbbing beat representing a very strong second chakra, Yesod, and when it came to Malkhut a combining of all the dances we had done before.

    “And the same order was also based on the seven days of creation and I rigged up a set of color beams, illuminations that would shine, one for each day. For the light of the first day “He created light,” I took it to be ultra-violet and I used a black light; for the light of the second day, the color of the sky and the water, blue; for the light of the third day, the color of the vegetation that is created with chlorophyll as the main color, green; for the light of the fourth day, the color of the sun, a yellow star, yellow; for the light of the fifth day of creation, when all the egg layers, the visions of the birds, were created, I used the color of the yolks, orange; for the light of the sixth day, for the animals and humans, the hemoglobin, for blood, red; and for the light on the Sabbath, representing the cessation of all that that came before it infra-red, and we danced to a strobe light. These are also the colors I designed for the Bnai Or Tallit.

    “These dances were also based upon the archetypal people associated with each Sefira: The males were Abraham (Chessed), Isaac (Gevurah), Jacob (Tiferet), Moses (Netzach), Aaron (Hod), Joseph (Yesod) and David (Malchut); the females were Miriam (Chessed), Leah (Gevurah), Hannah (Tiferet), Rebeccah (Netzach), Sarah (Hod), Tamar (Yesod) and Rachel (Malchut).

    “After we spent some time studying and embodying the attitudes, movements and feelings, connecting them with the right rhythms and melodies, people were able to experience the generosity of Chessed, getting it into their bodies, feeling what it is like to be generous and expansive in the way in which I had envisioned. For the second dance, that of Gevurah, they felt what it is like to be severe, limit-setting and focused, specific. They got to feel what it is like to open to the compassion of Tiferet; then to embody and feel what it is like to be in Netzach, focused on the task-like agent aspects and the fulfillment of tasks; then to be in the body and to feel Hod dancing unselfconsciously, with the kind of freedom to move in the flowing way like so many contemporary dances; then to enter the burlesque aspect of Yesod.

    “Finally, for Malkhut, corresponding to the Shabbat, we would either lie down on the floor and yield, surrendering to gravity or go through all these of the six and find them in the body-attitudes and to see if one could really take ownership of each one. In this way, during the up-coming year, whenever one of them was needed, they would be available for our embodiment. For instance, when I will need to get generosity going in myself, will I still remember how I danced that dance of Chessed / generosity on Simchat Torah; and when I will need to go and speak to my boss about a raise in salary, will I be able to put on the the body the feeling of Gevurah.

    “Because the teaching goes into the dances and when we need to, we are borrowing from those modes to be used during the year and that is one of the purposes of the dances of Simchat Torah. The word Hakkafot, meaning the circle dances also is a synonym for borrowing, to pay back later. (Hachenvaniy makkif)

    “Now the Ma’amar / discourse I wrote about the Hakkafot that you may have read is trying to say something from a more conceptual point of view. A conceptual understanding is useful, because it’s not only the body and the affect that will launch the power and impact of those dances, but there has to be also a certain kind of understanding too.

    “With each circle dance, one will also find in the Siddur a prayer connected to it, beginning with the first hakafah: Anna Hashem Hoshi’ah na, Annah Hashem Hatzlicha na, Anna Hashem Annenu b’yom Kor’eynu / God please help, etc. and the prayers reflect the aspects of each hakafah and continue until in the fifth one,”King of the worlds,” the sixth one, “Helper of the poor helpless” and the seventh, “Holy and awesome one;” so that each one of the prayers has a very specific connection to the dances in the texts.

    “So I hope that when you will read this you will be able to see the dynamic way in which the main themes modulate, as, e.g., in the octave where Chessed is the main theme and the harmony is Gevurah that it will gradually develop until the previous harmony, Gevurah, becomes the main theme in its own right.

    “I would love it if someone were to write these themes into a symphony in seven movements that we could use for the Simchat Torah dances.”

  28. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

    Millennia ago, the earth was washed in water
    connections sparked unimaginable across the water

    the life we know begins cradled in water
    each human being emerges in a flood of water

    from ancient times we’ve prayed to God for water
    not too much, not too little, just enough water

    this year the landscape I first knew lacked water
    grasslands parched, thirsting for drops of water

    this year the hills where I live ran with water
    seeping through roofs, swelling doors shut with water

    to mark holy times we immerse ourselves in water
    washing our old hurts away in water

    in the city of gold rooftop tanks collect water
    those who have and those who lack fight over water

    in the beginning, presence hovered over water
    mysterious and unknowable like deep water

    the bodies we inhabit are made of water
    our veins and tissues stay functional through water

    we couldn’t stand and offer praise without water
    source of all, be kind to us: send water.


    On the festival of Shemini Atzeret, in many communities, during the musaf repetition of the amidah (the extra iteration of the standing prayer), a prayer is offered which describes our holy relationship with God through the repeated motif of water. It’s called tefilat geshem, “the rain prayer.” …
    From here on out, as we pray the amidah (the standing prayer which is central to our liturgy) daily, we’ll replace the one-line request for dew with a one-line request for winds and rain. (At Pesach, we recite tefilat tal, the dew prayer, and thenceforth we daily ask for dew instead of for rain…until Shemini Atzeret.) The year oscillates between these two poles.

    Many classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) take a form which looks to me, as a student of poetry, not unlike a ghazal. A ghazal is a Persian/Arabic/Urdu form which I first learned through reading the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, may his memory be a blessing. (Here’s one of his poems, titled simply Ghazal.) Ghazals are written in couplets, and each line ends with a “refrain” word. A classical ghazal features meter, as well as a kind of hidden rhyme, found in the word which precedes the refrain word.

    The classical prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret is beautiful poetry, and I don’t mean to supplant it — rather to add to the body of liturgical poetry of which it is a part. In that spirit, I offer this “ghazal” (I’m putting that in quotes because I haven’t fully lived up to the constraints of the classical Persian form), a contemporary variation on the prayer for rain spoken today, on Shemini Atzeret. May we all be washed with blessings like falling water.

  29. Wendy

    From Rabbi Jill Hammer
    The Jewish Book of Days

    The Circle of Love
    Eight Day of Assembly: Shemini Atzeret

    “Shemini what?” is a common question for those not familar with the Jewish calendar. “Shemini Atzeret” means “eighth day of assembly”. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is the day Jews finish the last chapter of Torah and begin the circle of Torah again (also known as Simchat Torah). Jews in the Diaspora celebrate the days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (the rejoicing of the Torah) separately. For those Jews, what is the meaning of Shemini Atzeret?

    One explanation is that Shemini Atzeret is a day for the Divine to say good-bye. The Jewish people have been celebrating with festivals for weeks now. At this moment, we are about to return to our mundane lives. On Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly, the Holy One asks us to stay one more day and have a small meal, out of love. The holiday, in this telling has no specific historical
    meaning; it is simply an opportunity for affection.

    Like the cycle of rain, the cycle of love has no beginning and no end. It fertilizes us and changes us. Shemini Atzeret is a time to celebrate love itself and to say good-bye to the festival season. Tishrei will soon be over, and the seed of our love must carry us into the coming year.

    Cited: 1 Kings 8:63-66
    Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55B
    The Circle of Torah
    Simchat Torah

    On Simchat Torah, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark. People dance with them through seven rounds of circle dancing. Everyone, including children, has an aliyah, and “ascent to the Torah.” A member of the congregation, called the hatan or kallah Torah,/em.> (the groom or bride of the Torah), is honored with reading the final verses of the Torah. Then another person is called up as the hatan or kallah Bereshit, the groom or bride of the Beginning and the first verses of the Torah are read. Simchat Torah is the solstice of the Torah: The circle of Torah comes around to its beginning and then spins onward.

    The book of Jubilees claims Deborah, the nurse of the matriarch Rebekah, died on this day. Little is known about Deborah other than that she was buried under Alon Bakhut, “the oak of weeping”. Deborah may have been a person of some importance, a prophet and healer perhaps, as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests in her book She Who Dwells Within.”

    Deborah’s death is intertwined with the symbolic death of the Torah, and her burial under a tree represents the Torah’s rebirth. This is the message of Simchat Torah; the Torah is reborn again and again, year after year. The oak of weeping becomes the oak of rejoicing. As we dance the seven circles of Simchat Torah, we dance the Torah back to its place of beginning.

    Cited; Deuteronomy 34:5,10
    Jubilees 32:25-30.


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