Rabbi David Walk
Every year we revisit the special status of Shmini Atzeret. This holiday always presents us with a problem, because it's connected to Sukkot, but is considered a separate festival as well. So, is it a continuation of the joy of the harvest feast or a separate holiday with a new message? Its standing as a unique entity is enshrined in Halacha by the fact that we pronounce the blessing of Shehechiyanu ('Who has given us life') on it. If it were just the continuation of Sukkot (as the seventh day of Pesach is), there wouldn't be this joyous pronouncement of newness. So, we struggle with this conundrum every year. But we love these mysteries, because they yield fascinating new insights.
The most famous answer to this question is that since Sukkot is the most universal of our festivals (after all it is a harvest holiday and everybody eats, plus we sacrificed 70 oxen in the Temple, representative of the 70 nations who descended from Noach, and the fourteenth chapter of Zecharia says that in the future all the nations will come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot), we wanted private time with God after all the company left. Rashi explains this phenomenon by translating the word atzeret as 'detained', and then tells the following story: "I have detained you to remain with Me." This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to a great public feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: "My sons! Please, stay with me alone for just one more day, because it is difficult for me to part from you!" (Vayikra 23:36).
But I've discovered a novel approach to this question based on a beautiful idea from Reb Nissan Alpert OB"M. I'm so glad to present this idea because I was so very fond of Rav Alpert, who was a ben bayit (household member) of Rav Moshe Feinstein OB"M when he came to America after World War II. Later I knew him as a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. He died much too early. In any case, I heard in his name that regarding Sukkot's relationship to the other holidays that comprise the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals) that Sukkot is the last and culminating celebration. However, he further explains that, in some aspects, Sukkot embodies the essence of all the yomim tovim. He asks why the Torah (Vayikra 23:41) has to use the words "shiv'at yomim bashana" — seven days in the year — in describing Sukkot when "shiv'at yomim" without the word "bashana" would have sufficed. He answers that since Sukkot ends the annual holiday cycle, Sukkot, so to speak, incorporates all the seven days of Yom Tov that occur during the year (two days of Pesach, one day of Shavuot, one day of Rosh HaShana, one day of Yom Kippur, one day each of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret). Therefore, he explains that when the Torah states v'chagotem oto chag l'Hashem shiv'at yomim bashana — and you shall celebrate it as a holiday seven days in the year — it means that you will celebrate Sukkot, which includes and incorporates the seven days of the other yomim tovim throughout the year. Furthermore, it states the word simcha three times regarding Sukkot in the Torah, since it incorporates all of the Shalosh Regalim and their happiness.
This idea is especially powerful when we combine it with the Sukkot custom of Ushpizin. These metaphoric visitors from our nation's past represent so many concepts, like our connection to our people's history. However, perhaps, the greatest notion about these guests is that we try to emulate their character traits as described in the Kabbalah. These are: Avraham-Kindness (chesed), Yitzchak-Courage (gevurah), Ya'akov-Splendor (tiferet), Moshe-Eternity (netzach), Aharon-Majesty (hod), Yosef-Fundamentals (yesod), and David-Royalty (malchut). If we take this idea one step further, then the seven days of annual holiday celebration really culminates in the seventh commemoration which is Shmini Atzeret. In this way, Shmini Atzeret not only incorporates the joy from all the other holidays, but it also represents the malchut of King David. We have a little taste of the messianic period on Shmini Atzeret. That fits in well with the traditional approach to Shmini Atzeret in which we hobnob with God in splendid isolation from the rest of humanity. We do believe that in the future redeemed state our special relationship with God will be recognized by the whole world.
I want to thank Rabbi Michael Dubitzky who enlightened me concerning Rav Alpert's position in his article in YU's Sukkot-to-Go publication. So, it was on my mind during the first days of chag. Then I noticed that our Sages may have already hinted to this idea in the yom tov prayers. In every yom tov silent devotion, both the standard one used three times a day and musaf, we recite at the beginning of the fourth blessing: You have chosen us (b'chartanu) from all the nations, You have loved (ahavta) us, and favored (ratzita) us, and raised us above (romamtanu) all other tongues, and sanctified us (kidashtanu) with Your mitzvoth, and You have brought us close (keiravtanu), our King, to your service, and Your great and holy name upon us You have called (karata). These seven verbs, I believe, represent the seven annual days of yom tov celebration, from our being chosen at Pesach until our being called by God's name at Shmini Atzeret. This yearly cycle is a process of our ascending to higher spiritual levels through the observance of these festivals. This shift to higher, more exalted status may be hinted at by the customs of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. During the parade of lulavim while reciting Hoshanot we march around a Torah scroll in the center of our sanctuary, but during the Hakafot of Simchat Torah the Torah scrolls march around the shul encircling us.
On this special day we have become the focus of God's holy attention, may we merit and enjoy this great honor. Chag Sameach!