“The eighth day (Shemini Atzeres) shall be a restriction for you: you shall not do any laborious work. You shall offer an olah, a fire offering, a satisfying aroma to Hashem…” (Bamidbar 29:35). What is the nature of this Yom Tov? Rashi says that it is a festival of endearment from Hashem. We are like children about to part from their father. Hashem says, “Your leaving is difficult for me. Stay another day and make a small seudah so that we can spend more time together” (Sukkah 55b). What will this extra day and its seudah accomplish when the next day, again, the parting from Hashem will be difficult?
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Slowly, he approached the gates, as he was about to exit that house of horrors known as Auschwitz. That Reb Itche, a Gerer chossid, could still walk was itself a miracle. He had lost his entire family, his father, his mother, two brothers, and three sisters.
For four years, he endured degradation, beatings, starvation, and the atrocities committed around him, but now he was free. He was battered and bruised, but not broken. The liberated survivors walked out of the camp very slowly, as if garnering every ounce of their remaining strength for each step. One by one, they walked outside without a backward glance. They had seen enough of this purgatory and they couldn’t leave it fast enough. But Reb Itche stopped at the gate – the gate with the cynical sign above it saying, “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free).”
Why was he just standing there? One could imagine the worries on his mind. Where would he go now? He had no place to call home. What would the future hold in store for him? How would he start a new family? What about parnossah? But these were not his main concerns at the moment.
He started talking, directing his words upwards, to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. He began to express what was foremost on his mind. “Ribono Shel Olam,” he said, “the last four years in this heinous place were filled with barbarity to which even the seven components of gehennom cannot compare. Millions of Yidden lost their lives and very few who entered here remained alive. Despite all of this, I felt tremendous kedushah and taharah. I can testify that throughout this entire ordeal, no non-kosher food entered my mouth. The deveikus that I felt was like one long and continuous Yom Kippur.”
“But now that we’ve been freed, I’m afraid of going out into the world. At the present, I feel kedushah, but what will I look like after a while? I implore you, Hashem, for that which we ask for during Ne’ilah, the climax of Yom Kippur: Pesach lonu sha’ar… Open up the Heavenly gates for us at this time when the gate closes. Please don’t let me lose the deveikus.”
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While we are far from the level of this Jew’s kedushah and deveikus, we have somewhat of the same feeling at the culmination of Yom Kippur. Throughout Elul, we prepared for the Yom Hadin. We were inspired and elevated by Rosh Hashanah. The sounds of the shofar awoke us to teshuvah and brought us to the inner sanctum of Hashem (Rosh Hashanah 26a). This led us into the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Throughout all of these days, we awoke early to recite Selichos and we had penitence on our minds.
Then came the Yom Hakadosh, that awesome day of Yom Kippur, when our neshamos were cleansed. Who wasn’t inspired by the Kol Nidrei, the davening, the singing, the Unesaneh Tokef, the avodah, the story of the Ten Martyrs, the story of Yonah and the impassioned plea of the ship’s captain, “Mah lecha nirdam?”(Yonah 1:6). How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to Your G-d…that He should wake us up as well. The kohein gadol, messenger of Klal Yisroel, entered the Kodesh Hakodoshim, a sign that we, too, have come in direct contact with the Holy Shechinah.
But now, during Ne’ilah, we stand in fear. What will happen to this tremendous deveikus after this awesome day is done? What will we look like? How can we go back out into the world knowing that we could easily lose the closeness of the relationship we have built with Hashem? For this we cry, “Pesach lonu sha’ar… Open up the Heavenly gate for us at this time when the gate closes, for the day is fading away. The day will fade, the sun will set and be gone – let us come to Your gate” (Tefillas Ne’ilah).
And Hashem answers: “Fear not my children. That tremendous bond that was forged between us those days needn’t be dissolved. I will provide you with the tools to keep it intact. Just follow My instructions. Build a sukkah and live in it for seven days. It is only a temporary dwelling place. Think about it and realize that your entire life on earth is temporary. Nothing is secure.”
“Futility of futilities! All is futile!” said Koheles. The only things that are permanent are your spiritual accomplishments. Torah, avodah, and gemillus chassodim. This idea alone can maintain our strong relationship.
More tools I’ve given you, says Hashem. They are the Daled Minim, with their tremendous remozim and segulos. The Medrash tells us that each one of the four species alludes to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Like the esrog, He is hodor, beautiful. Like the lulav, kappos temorim, He is a tzaddik, as it says, “Tzaddik katomor yifrach” (Tehillim 92:13). About these it is said: “Ulekachtem lochem – Take them for yourselves” (Vayikra 23:40). Hold on to them and bond with the Shechinah. No wonder that throughout the Hoshanos, we say, “Ani vaho hoshiah na.” I and He, referring to Hakadosh Boruch Hu, are together.
The four species also represent the various segments in Klal Yisroel. When we are together in achdus, like the Daled Minim, the Shechinah rests amongst us. They are also representative of our blessings from Hashem, the crops that we have harvested from our land, and how dependent we are on Hashem. In addition to all of these, the sanctity of Yom Tov imbibes us with a special closeness to Hashem. For this the Torah commands us: “And you shall rejoice before Hashem for a seven-day period” (ibid.). How happy we should be, for we have left the Kodesh Hakodoshim of Yom Kippur. The gates of deveikus should have been closed and yet we still feel that they are very much still open.
But now, after the first days of Yom Tov are over, we are faced with that worry once again. On Chol Hamoed, the kedushah of Yom Tov is not as great as it was before. Min HaTorah, there is no longer a mitzvah to take the Daled Minim. We are missing two of our tools. Can we still maintain that special relationship with Hashem like before? Here is where the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah comes in.
The simcha centered around the drawing of the water for the nisuch hamayim on the mizbeiach. Chazal tell us that when Hashem separated the water on the second day of creation, the waters below cried out, “We, too, want to be above, together with the King.” To appease the waters, Hashem promised that they, too, would come before Him, as they will be poured onto the altar and their salt will be placed on the korbanos.
How was this of comfort to the vast waters that cover the entire earth that would never get to the mizbaeiach? We see from this that even the smallest contribution, the slightest contact, can create a connection beyond our imagination. For deveikus cannot be quantified, and more important than the tools we use to bond with Hashem is the desire to be together with Him. This is a lesson to us. Even minimal opportunities, deeds that we might not envision as special, can maintain a deep relationship with Hashem.
Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananya said: “When we rejoiced at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, we did not see sleep with our eyes…” (Sukkah 53a). This expression is curious, for the Tanna could have simply said, “We did not sleep.” In addition to not sleeping physically, they didn’t feel any weakening of their relationship with Hashem from the Yomim Noraim. The inspiration of the shofar that called out, “Awaken sleepy ones from your sleep,” was still with them. And their eyes, with the clear and pure outlook of Yom Kippur, were not dimmed at all despite the passing of time and lessening the tools of before.
Then comes the eighth day, Shemini Atzeres. “And you will be completely joyous” (Devorim 16:15). During the previous seven days, we had the mitzvos of sukkah, Daled Minim, nisuch hamayim, and many korbanos. On this day, we no longer have these mitzvos. Even the korbanos of the day have been minimized to a seudah ketanah. Our separation will be difficult, says Hashem. But with this extra day, we see that we can maintain that special bond without any special mitzvos, with the training wheels removed, with only that small meal to keep us together. That, in and of itself, is a reason to rejoice.
Now we are left to our own devices. The days of Yom Tov have passed. Hopefully, they’ve been internalized. To bond with Hashem, we must go the trek on our own. But wait. Have I forgotten? We have the most potent tool to keep us together with Hashem, the holy Torah itself. Perhaps this is why we celebrate with the Torah on the last day of Yom Tov. It can keep us close to Hashem, as if we are standing in the Kodesh Hakodoshim. As Shlomo Hamelech says, “Yekoroh hee mepninim – It is more precious than pearls” (Mishlei 3:15). And, as Chazal explain, those who are engaged in it are more precious than the kohein gadol who entered lifnai velifnim, the innermost sanctum (Sotah 4b).