The Hebrew month of Tishri is permeated with a feeling of holiness. The Holydays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot take us out of the drudgery of our mundane routine and lift our lives onto a higher dimension. The more we become immersed in this atmosphere of holiness, the more our daily struggles and material ambitions seem to recede into the distance. By the time we reach Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot, the thought of returning to our normal lives is unbearable. All that we want to do is be with God, to bask in the radiance of the Divine presence and dwell in the consciousness of the higher worlds.

This spiritual longing is symbolized by the prayer for rain that we recite on the holyday of Shemini Atzeret. This prayer is a heartfelt call for the “heavenly waters of Divine inspiration” to fall upon us and quench our inner thirst. It is this longing for spiritual watering that lies at the heart of this holyday and is, in fact, the only reason that it exists.

This yearning within us for God is aroused by God’s desire to commune with His creation. In the Talmud, Sukkah 55B, the holyday of Shemini Atzeret is compared to the case of a king who invites his children to spend some days with him in his palace. As the time for their departure draws near, the king is overwhelmed with sadness. Therefore, he turns to his children and pleads:

“Stay with me yet one more day, I cannot bear to part from you.”

In a similar manner, God feels such joy being with His children (Israel) during Sukkot that He added an extra day onto the holyday; that extra day is Shemini Atzeret.

In Israel, the holyday of Shemini Atzeret is interwoven with the festival of Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah is a celebration of the Word of God. During the rest of the year, we focus our energies on studying the Torah and fulfilling God’s Will. On Simchat Torah, we are no longer content with mere intellectual learning or even inspirational insight; we want to meet the Lord from whom the Torah has come.

Whenever a Hindu scholar would come to Sri Ramakrishna and give elaborate discourses on the scriptures, Ramakrishna used to respond by saying:

“You have come to the orchard to eat mangoes. Eat the mangoes. What is the good of calculating how many trees there are in the orchard, how many thousands of branches and how many millions of leaves?” [1]

On Simchat Torah, we are no longer satisfied with merely counting the number of trees in the orchard; we want to taste the sweet flesh of the mango.

This is the meaning of the passage in the Talmud, Hulin 59B, which states that even after the heavens and earth had been completed and everything was set in place, the skies still would not open up nor would the earth bring forth life until Adam came and prayed for rain.  The Rabbis are informing us through this teaching that if our learning does not awaken a desire to know God, then it is of no real value; only a sincere longing for God will call down the heavenly rain. Only a profound inner yearning will enable us to partake of the “spiritual fruit.”

On Simchat Torah, the Torah scrolls are taken out from the Ark and carried in procession around the synagogue as the congregants follow in a joyful dance. This soulful dance is a form of devotional worship. Each step is an act of intention, each gesture a contemplative sweep. Through our outer physical movement we strive to reach the inner space where God dwells. We spin faster and faster in whirling circles as we struggle to break through the barrier between the Lord and ourselves.

On Simchat Torah, we bind ourselves to God through the power of His Word. We evoke the Torah as a spiritual vehicle that will lead us into God’s sacred presence. We strive to awaken that secret place inside us that will bring us into union with our supreme Lord.

We are told in the Kabbalah of the Ari that the Torah that we received on Mount Sinai is the physical expression of the Supernal Torah in the Mind of God. The whole of reality is contained in this Supernal Torah. The Eternal Plan for all of creation is encapsulated in this Divine thoughtform. On Simchat Torah, we reach up and touch this supernal source and “Divine rain” comes pouring down upon us in response.

This links us back to Shemini Atzeret and the theme of this whole time period, the longing to rest forever in the “arms” of God. This is the true source of the joy which makes us dance with such total abandon on Simchat Torah; the inner experience that penetrates beyond the outer surface of the Torah to reveal the living God that lies at its core. Once we have touched this place of infinite pure awareness, all that we desire is to never be separated from our Lord ever again.

copyright © 2010, by Yoel Glick

from Seeking the Divine Presence: The Three Pillars of a Jewish Spiritual Life



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 496