Rabbi Eliakim Koenigsberg
Shemini Atzeres - Living in Hashem's Presence
Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are the conclusion of the yom tov season which begins with Rosh Hashana. How are these days an appropriate finale to the yomim noraim? The tefillos of Rosh Hashana focus on expressing our desire that Hakadosh Boruch Hu's kingship over the world should be recognized by all. The beracha of kedushas hayom begins, "Rule over the entire world in your glory...let everything created by You know that You are its Maker." Even on Yom Kippur, the theme of kabolas malchus shamayim, accepting Hashem's kingship and praying for the day that all should recognize Hashem's strength and power, remains a primary motif. And yet, the main focus of Yom Kippur is teshuva. Why is discussing malchus shamayim so important in the process of teshuva?
The answer is that sin is possible only when a person forgets that he is constantly in the presence of the Ribbono Shel Olam. Our tefillos express a desire that all people should recognize Hashem's kingship, and included in that request is that we ourselves should constantly live with an awareness of Hashem's presence, that we should evaluate all of our actions through the prism of the Torah, and that our goal should be not to satisfy our own desires but to carry out Hashem's agenda for ourselves and for the world at large. Dedicating ourselves to malchus shamayim is not extraneous to the teshuva process at all, but rather it is a prerequisite for teshuva.
On Shemini Atzeres, our allegiance to Hashem and His Torah reaches its pinnacle. We leave the sukka and put down the daled minim. We have no special mitzvos on this yom tov. Rather, our sole focus is celebrating with Hashem and His Torah. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 782) comments that on Shemini Atzeres, the Jewish people declare, "Zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagilah v'nismecha bo - This is the day that Hashem made, we will rejoice and be happy bo." Asks the Midrash, "What does bo mean - 'with it' (meaning the yom tov of Shemini Atzeres) or 'with Him' (meaning Hashem)? Comes the posuk and explains, 'Nagilah v'nismecha bach (Shir Hashirim 1:4)' - bach b'Torascha, bach biyeshuascha - with You in your Torah, with You in your salvation."
Shemini Atzeres is the day we declare that ultimate happiness can be felt only when a person connects to Hakadosh Boruch Hu and His Torah, when one recognizes that his strength and his success come only from Hashem. On Simchas Torah, we circle around the Torah to demonstrate that we want to subordinate ourselves to the spirit of the Torah and to live by the dictates and agenda of the Torah. Our exuberance and joy when dancing with the Torah is an expression of our heartfelt desire to take with us the tefilla of the yomim noraim that Hashem's kingship should be recognized by all, including ourselves.
The message of Shemini Atzeres is an appropriate prelude to Parshas Bereishis. The posuk says that when Hashem created Adam HaRishon, He declared, "Let us make man in our image, in our form" (Bereishis 1:26.) Rashi comments that although the angels did not assist Hakadosh Boruch Hu in the creation of man, nevertheless the Torah uses the plural verb na'aseh in order to teach the trait of humility by implying that Hashem consulted with the angels, even though by doing so, the Torah makes it easier for heretics to claim that multiple gods were involved in the process of man's creation.
The question is why is it worth taking the risk that someone might err in his beliefs just to teach a proper character trait? Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Moadim 1, pp. 185-186) suggests that the Torah goes out of its way to teach the importance of humility because specifically this middah can prevent a person from making a mistake in his beliefs in the first place. If a person humbles himself and accepts malchus shamayim, he will not make a mistake in hashkafa. As the posuk says, "And you will become haughty, and you will forget Hashem" (Eikev, 8:14.) Having the proper perspective on life is often not a function of a person's intelligence, but rather of his middos. If a person develops a sense of humility, that will prevent him from making a mistake in his beliefs.
The truth is that all negative character traits stem from the same basic source, and that is a person's drive for self-satisfaction. The Rambam writes (Hilchos Teshuva 7:3) that one is obligated to do teshuva not only for improper actions, but even for inappropriate character traits like anger, jealousy, competition, and chasing after money, honor and physical pleasure. Why is this a part of teshuva? The answer is that improper character traits can lead a person to sin because if a person is focused on satisfying himself, he will not be able to exercise self-control. To do a complete teshuva, it is not enough to regret the actions a person has done. He must also uproot the negative attitudes and middos which caused his aveiros, because without doing so, his teshuva will only be temporary.
The first two aveiros recorded by the Torah are the sin of eating from the eitz ha'da'as and the killing of Hevel. Each one of these was caused not by a heretical belief, but by an improper middah. Chava ate from the eitz ha'da'as because the tree, "was a delight to the eyes and it was desirable as a means for wisdom." Chava wanted, "to be like G-d knowing good and bad," and she did not control herself. Similarly, after Hevel's korban is accepted and Kayin's is rejected, Kayin kills Hevel. Once again, it was Kayin's jealousy, not a heretical belief, which caused him to kill his brother. These two sins highlight the insight of the Rambam that to do a complete teshuva, a person must uproot his negative character traits because often a person's middos determine how he thinks and acts.
What can motivate a person to want to change his middos? A sincere desire to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of kvod shamayim, to subordinate his own will to that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. That is the message of the yomim noraim and Shemini Atzeres - to search for happiness not in the pursuit of physical pleasure and personal satisfaction, but in accepting malchus shamayim and fulfilling the will of Hashem. Nagilah v'nismecha bach. May we rejoice and find happiness in our connection to Hakadosh Boruch Hu because that is the ultimate delight.