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On the eighth day… there shall be an Atzeret... you shall not do any type of work (23:36).
Following Rashi (to Num. 29:35), the word Atzeret may be translated in two ways.
The first is "restriction", from both work and travel. With travel, people on their mandatory Sukkot visit to Jerusalem had the restriction of not being allowed to leave until after the Shemini Atzeret.
The second is "assembly". After seven days of Sukkot, where the offering of bulls on behalf of the gentile nations had been taking center stage, G-d issues an invitation to the Israelites only: "Please make a small banquet for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company".
The Sforno observes that of the five days of the Shalosh Regalim (in Israel) where work is forbidden, three carry the name of Atzeret.
The first is the seventh day of Pesach: "the seventh day shall be an Atzeret to G-d. You may not do any work" (Deut. 16:8). It was the day the Israelites were saved from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and it was the day that they sang the famous song with Moses out of the deepest gratitude. The Sforno explains that for that reason the Torah gave the seventh day of Pesach the status of Atzeret.
The second is Shavuot. Atzeret is the rabbinic name for Shavuot (e.g. Pesachim 66b). It is the day that the Torah was given. However, unlike the other two occasions the Torah itself does not use Atzeret for Shavuot. The Sforno explain why. It is because the Israelites forfeited some of their spiritual status with the sin of the Golden Calf that happened very soon afterwards.
The third is Shemini Atzeret, the day after Sukkot. In a similar vein to Rashi, Sforno emphasizes that it is the culmination of the entire festive cycle, the period when the Israelites are closest to G-d. That is the time to celebrate the relationship in the spirit of "Let Israel rejoice in Him who made them" (Psalms 149:2).
It may be suggested that there is a progression with the three Atzeret occasions. Each one represents a different theme running through Torah observance. The seventh day of Pesach represents a decisive and formative event in the development of the Jewish People, when G-d intervened in saving the Israelites from the Egyptians. That event is in the past: it does not take place every day.
Shavuot also encapsulates an event of the past; the Giving of the Torah. However, the mitzvah of learning Torah every day and every night extends it right into the present.
And Shemini Atzeret is in the present. It is the time when the intense festive cycle reaches its zenith. Yet every year is different. Even though the dates of the Chagim are standard, everyone experiences them slightly differently. And the experience of one year does not match the next. It is the present that is creating the joy, not specifically an event in the past. Thus G-d invites us to capture that moment with "Please make a small banquet for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company" so that in turn the Israelites can respond with "Let Israel rejoice in Him who made them". As they do today, with the joyous Simchat Torah proceedings.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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