Shmini Atzeret 5780: The Invisible Festival

On Shabbat morning, I referred to the death last December of 28 year old Bethan Roper, who was killed when she leaned out of the window of a fast moving train and her head hit a tree. A post-mortem examination found her to have had a high level of alcohol in her blood.

I reflected on my words and thoughts and realised that they stemmed from deep feelings of frustration and anger at the needless passing of this young woman. She could have Gd forbid been any of our daughters, granddaughters, nieces or cousins.

With this in mind, I am dedicating this drasha to the memory of Bethan. May she rest in peace.

I will come back to Bethan and her actions shortly.

You may have heard of Sir Francis Galton. A half-cousin of Charles Darwin and a psychologist, he is credited as being the person who coined the term 'nature versus nurture'. On a more sinister theme, he also defined the term 'eugenics', which was later used to devastating effect by the Nazis.

Galton is also known as the person who introduced the first word-association test to psychology. He used a list of 75 stimulus words with which he read and noted his responses to his patients. This was later developed by Carl Jung and he is credited for being its first major proponent.

I am not going to try to unravel your subconscious, but I think it would be fun if we tried a small experiment together.

I am going to say the name of a Chag and please call out the first word that comes to mind....

Rosh Hashanah




Simchat Torah

Tu Bishvat




Yom Kippur


What is the first word that comes to mind if I say "Shmini Atzeret"?

I would wager a bet that if you took a sample of 30 British Jewish people across the religious spectrum and asked them to list the festivals, very few would mention Shmini Atzeret - the forgotton festival!

When I was growing up, as soon as Sukkot was finishing and Shmini Atzeret came around, it seemed like a day that made the wonderful Simchat Torah all the more remote. "I'll get through Shmini Atzeret....and then the fun really begins tonight when I go to shul and watch the festivities".

Can you relate to this?

Yet, listen to this:

(לה) בַּיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י עֲצֶ֖רֶת תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

(35) On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations. (36) You shall present a burnt offering...

Where is Simchat Torah?! Not a single mention in the Torah of our lovely upcoming celebration.

Rav Moshe Taragin, who teaches the Yeshivat Har Etzion has written a lovely article in this week's JC.

He describes how our ancestors used to spend the week of Sukkot in the Beit Hamikdash.

According to our sages, it was THE place to be for Jews who had made one of their three annual pilgrimages - or foot festivals (shalosh regalim) to spend the week. The Temple hosted a pagenat of singing, dancing, fire eating and juggling etc for the duration of Chol Hamo'ed, along with the unforgettable Simchat Beit Hashoevah - the water drawing ceremony. As the festivities drew to a close on the 7th day of Pesach (or Hoshana Rabba), Gd asked us to stay with him for just one more day "in His House", so that our close association would not end prematurely.

Hence the festival of Shmini Atzeret - the 8th day.

The problem was however, that, with the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash - Shmini Atzeret and its two days in the diaspora, lost its major connection. No Temple. No festivities. Nothing.

About 1000 years ago, the Rabbis decided that since Shmini Atzeret marked the end of the annual reading of the Torah, they would create a new chag on the second day and call it Simchat Torah. Over the years, inevitably, Simchat Torah took over and now, look at our survey.

Who knows Shmini Atzeret? - it has become the invisible festival.

The fascinating thing is that, although it may seem invisible and insignificant, it is in fact one of THE most important chagim in the Jewish calendar.

If you think about Sukkot, there is a deep connection between the chag and its successor. An almost invisible but vital umbilical cord.

On Sukkot, we take the Arba Minim, the lulav, Etrog, hadassim and Aravot - wha tdo they have in common?

All four cannot survive or indeed grow without water. In fact, the Aravot, the willows depend on water for their very existence. Without rain to provide Gd's nourishment, we would have no arba minim to shake.

Think about Shmini Atzeret -what is the focal point of the festival - the prayer for rain which I will recite shortly.

Without rain, our precious land of Israel could Gd forbid collapse. It is - and always has been reliant on the winter rains - the early (Yoreh) and later (malkush) rains which fill the Kinneret, flow into the Jordan and ultimately into the Dead Sea. Israel's delicate eco-system relies on the rain. The very rain that we pray for on Shmini Atzeret. Long after we have returned the Sifrei Torah to the ark, enjoyed the jamboree of Simchat Torah and settled into a new year - our prayers on Shmini Atzeret will Please Gd be helping to protect our previous land of Israel, provide water to the farmers for their crops, contribute to the reservoirs that channel water through to the taps in every home and possibly prevent a future war in the Middle East between thirsty neighbours.

The prayer for rain, so vital is delayed from the first day of Sukkot because we don't want to ask Gd for it to rain too early, while we are sitting in our Sukkot (although it doesn't seem to have worked this year in the UK) - it's delay is almost invisible - we don't really think about the prayer until the end of the chag - but we know and we always have known that, for Simchat Torah to really mean something - we have to look beyond the day to the next six months - when the rain we pray for - will mean that Pesach, our next chag, will arrive without our brothers and sisters fretting about the dry winters that have just passed.

Shmini Atzeret - the day we almost forgot - is defined by that rain.

And Bethan, dear Bethan, this is where you come in.

You could have achieved so much if you had remembered who you could have been. If you had thought about the consequences of your actions, before you became inebriated and lost the ability to make the right decisions. You chose to ignore the warnings, the signs, both physical and invisible that created the circumstances which led to your untimely passing. What should have been visible all along, became invisible and forgotten.

Yes, the sign on the train window could have been a tad larger. Yes, the trees that lined the track should have been pruned - but at the end of the day, you did something that you should not have done. You made the choice - the wrong choice and you - and your bereft family - have paid the ultimate price.

Shmini Atzeret reminds us to look for the invisible and make it visible. If we take it seriously and make the most out of the day, we can truly enjoy the joyful day that is Simchat Torah.

Wishing you all a Chag Sameach and a healthy, happy, rainy (at least in Israel) new year.