Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


Rashi2 explains the underlying reason for having a separate holiday of Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah immediately following the conclusion of Succos. “It is comparable to a king who invited his sons for a meal for a specific amount of time. When the time came for them to depart he (the king) said, “I am begging of you, detain yourselves and spend one day with me; it is difficult for me that you are departing.”
The commentators question what the king gains by detaining his children for one more day if it merely pushes off the inevitable pain of departure until the following day?

Jeremy was a young man who had grown up on the streets. Throughout his youth he was constantly getting into trouble with the law. Although his crimes were only petty misdemeanors, like spraying public buildings with graffiti, and shoplifting, the police had a large dossier on him.
As Jeremy matured he began to feel remorse for his actions and his way of life. He also feared getting caught again. He realized that although he had been able to finagle his way out of trouble in the past, he might not be so lucky next time. He dreamed about changing his lifestyle and he pondered how he could “give back” to the city.
One day he had an epiphany. He decided that he would build a concert hall right in the middle of the city slums. It would be a massive edifice and a beautiful state-of-the-art structure, the likes of which the city had never seen. There would be a huge stage that could host the largest concertos and symphonies from around the world, with an audience capacity of over ten-thousand.
Of course one cannot simply construct a beautiful building in a run down area of town, and Jeremy realized that he would first need to clear an entire three block area. He planned to demolish all the buildings that were in the vicinity and then turn the area into an aesthetic oasis right in the middle of the slums. He hoped that doing so would trigger a process of urban renewal, in which the new area and concert hall would spark dramatic improvement of the area. With a plethora of concerts attracting the rich and famous, upper-class stores would be constructed in the vicinity and the surrounding real estate would skyrocket. It would cause gentrification - rapid increase in property value and an influx of revenue and income in the area. Eventually the slums would be completely replaced by the new beautiful section of the city.
Jeremy was convinced that his idea was infallible and he spent years tirelessly campaigning for it. When he had finally generated enough contributions to finance the project, the process began. The first step was to totally destroy everything in the vicinity. Wreckers used dynamite and huge wrecking balls to raze every building. The deafening sounds of explosions, demolition, and shattering glass filled the air. Tens of trucks were needed to haul away mountains of debris, until finally the area was clear.
The problem was that the stench of the slums that had been there for decades still filled the air. Rats and vermin ran freely through the empty area which looked like a war zone. Jeremy realized that a serious process of beautification was necessary before the construction could even begin. Aesthetic experts were brought in and Jeremy spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on landscaping, planting trees, shrubbery, and flower gardens. Historic looking streetlights were erected with expensive flowers lining the pavement, with ponds and pools of water constructed around beautiful statues. It took months for them to finish, but when they did the area was completely transformed.
At that point they began building the concert hall itself. Jeremy hired the best construction crews in the world, along with top engineers to plan every minute detail. The construction crews laboriously constructed the foundation and the steel outline of the hall. When the frame of the building was up, they began the arduous task of building the interior. When finally done it was an incredible sight. Every detail had been taken into serious consideration - the acoustics, the stage, the seats, the rooms backstage, the windows, the curtains, etc. It was truly magnificent.  
The grand opening was a tremendous celebration. Politicians, dignitaries, statesmen, entrepreneurs, and journalists from every major media outlet were in attendance. Thousands of people showed up, not only to celebrate the opening of the most beautiful concert hall in the country, but also to celebrate the uncanny transformation that had taken place in the area. There was great confidence that within a short time the rest of the slums would follow suit and the most dangerous section of the city would become a bad memory. The festivities lasted for hours, with people singing and dancing with euphoric joy. The mayor presented Jeremy with a medal of honor and the key to the city. It was almost dark when the music and celebration died down.
A few weeks went by and the concert hall stood in quiet grandeur. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the first concert. People excitedly checked the newspapers daily to find out when they could purchase tickets. But no concerts were scheduled. Many great orchestra and band leaders tried to book the hall but the office was always closed. Eventually they stopped trying.
As the months passed, the grime of the slum gradually began to creep back into the three block oasis. Graffiti began showing up on the walls of the expensive buildings, the flowers and shrubbery were uprooted and trampled on, and gang activity resumed around the statues and fountains.
One day, one of the wealthy financers of the project went to visit Jeremy to find out what had gone wrong. He was shocked when Jeremy downplayed his concerns. Jeremy unabashedly explained that he had done the major work and now felt that he needed a long break. The entrepreneur jumped up in a fury, “Are you out of your mind? The whole project was only created for concerts. The profits from those events that will be used to further beautify the area. The more people come, the more the area will be enhanced. But if you are allowing the building to remain unused, not only will your efforts not pay off, but they all will have been a waste. We will have pumped millions of dollars into a wasted opportunity. You must act NOW! There is no time to lose; we can still salvage all our efforts if we can fill the hall with music. But if we wait any longer we will have to start all over again and it will only become harder.”

Throughout the year we are on some level of “spiritual automatic pilot.” We do mitzvos out of rote and we lack proper fear of G-d. Our evil inclination gets the better of us and we often fall prey to sin. Perhaps we do not commit any major sin per se, but we involve ourselves in sinful ‘misdemeanors’ that obstruct our relationship with G-d.
As Elul approaches along with the imminence of the annual celestial judgment, we begin to realize how far we have strayed spiritually. We begin to pine that closeness with G-d that we have compromised. We seek repentance and a way to break down the barriers that we have erected.
Rav Shimshon Pinkus zt’l explains that the sound of the shofar is the sound of destruction and demolition. [The choppy teruah sounds like a drill penetrating walls.] The shofar symbolizes the obliteration of all the barriers between us and G-d. It is the demolition crew clearing out the slums.
Despite the fact that our sins and iniquities have been pardoned, we are still faced with a big problem. The stench and repugnance of our sins is still noxious and overpowering. Although we have been forgiven, the negative impression our sins made on our souls bars us from approaching the inner chambers of the King. Yom Kippur is a beautification process. “For on this day He will atone for you, in order to purify you, from all of your sins, before G-d you will become purified.”
Yom Kippur is not merely the day when we “take out the garbage”; rather, it is the day when we “clean up the dump”. G-d Himself wipes our slates clean and grants us the opportunity to begin (literally) fresh. Flowers line the streets, fountains are erected, and a spirit of regal serenity seems to permeate the air. 
It is only at that point when the construction can actually commence. The mitzvos of the holiday of Succos represent some of the basic tenets of Judaism. Sitting in the Succah under the protection of G-d reminds us of the vanity of materialism and the physical world. The entire holiday celebrates our spiritual existence and the sublime joy of a Torah life. The four species represent every category within the Jewish people. We bind them together to symbolize the fact that united we stand and divided we fall. Throughout the holiday of Succos we are building within ourselves these fundamental foundations. “One nation, under G-d!”
On the final day of the glorious process, we celebrate in a most ostentatious manner. Young and old gather in shul to rejoice in sublime happiness. Although Simchas Torah is often seen as the final day, in an important sense, it is really opening day! For now the building is complete and ready for usage. The time has come to bring in the symphonies and to play the music. We are all members of G-d’s symphony, as it were. Our Torah learning, mitzvah observance, and Service to G-d is the melodious music that we play.
If we do not take advantage of all we worked so hard to accomplish throughout the months of Elul and Tishrei then we are analogous to Jeremy who failed to realize that the main point of all his work was only beginning. Now is the time to fill the hall and play the music!

This is the reason why the holiday of Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah follows Succos. When the imminence of departure is realized, the King calls out to his children, “Why must we take leave of each other? True, you can no longer remain in my palace. But I can return to your homes with you and be near you all year long. Wait one more day before you leave so that we can spend a day working out the details, i.e. where I will stay and how you will be able to host me.”
As the period of repentance and joy comes to its conclusion and we return to our daily lives, G-d calls out to us, as it were, “We do not have to be apart! I can come home with you if you will only welcome Me in. Spend this final day of the holiday - which has no mitzvah connected to it other than being in a state of complete joy - and figure out how you will maintain all you have gained. Contemplate how you will transform your home into a worthy resting place for My Presence.”
We make our homes into sanctuaries of holiness when they are filled with Torah study, adherence to halacha, and mitzvah observance. Therefore, on the holiday of Shemini Atzeres we celebrate Simchas Torah, our connection to Torah and our privilege to be the nation that bears the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. It is not merely a celebration of the completion of a cycle of Torah reading, but it is a celebration of our perennial connection with the Torah and its Author. 
On Simchas Torah we celebrate the opportunity afforded to us to renew our dedication to Torah study, to live a Torah lifestyle, and to begin a new cycle of learning on an elevated level; a step up from our study in the past. One who can hold on to the great joy of Simchas Torah throughout the year will be able to continue building, and will not have to begin again from scratch next Elul .
1 The following is the text of the speech I had the privilege to deliver in Kehillat New Hempstead on Simchas Torah eve 5764. The parable is my own.
2 Vayikra 23:36


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