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Shemini Atzeret: A most unusual festival!

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Shemini Atzeret is a most unusual festival. Other festivals have special mitzvot: on Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar; on Pesach we hold a seder; on Chanukah we light the candles. But on Shemini Atzeret, well… it lives up to its name. Atzeret means a day on which we stop. We stop creative activity. It’s a yomtov, that’s it! There aren’t even any special foods: Purim is well known for the hamantaschen we eat; Shavuot for dairy foods; Chanukah for oily foods; but there’s nothing really special on Shemini Atzeret.

But I believe that Shemini Atzeret has got something which no other festival has. You see, in the Gemara, Masechet Sotah 21A, our sages bring the verse, from Mishlei 6:23,

“Ki ner mitzvah v’torah. Oh” – “A mitzvah is compared to candlelight, and Torah to the light of the sun.”

Chazal explain that candlelight only gives you some benefit for as long as the candle is burning. After that, you don’t get anything from it. So too with regard to a mitzvah. When we’re performing the mitzvah, it’s exciting; it’s so amazing; but then once the mitzvah is over, the impact starts to fade away.

Not so however the study of Torah – it’s just like sunlight which is continuous because either knowingly or unknowingly, that experience of the study of Torah and the information that you’ve internalised will continue to guide and inspire you for the rest of your life. 

When we come to the end of our festival period and we arrive at Shemini Atzeret (celebrated in Israel as one day which incorporates Simchat Torah, and celebrated in the Diaspora as two days where the second day is Simchat Torah) we need to set the tone for the rest of the year. We don’t do it through mitzvot, which we only enjoy a benefit from temporarily. We do it by celebrating Torah to ensure that we will thereby have the right inspiration to take us through the rest of the year. This will give us the keys for a happy, meaningful, enjoyable and uplifted existence.

So I wish you all Chag Sameach, and let’s have a most wonderful Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah this year.