Rabbi Raymond Apple explains Sh’mini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

September 30, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He explains the upcoming festival.
ISRAEL & RAIN

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Sh’mini Atzeret is the day when we pray for rain. The chazan wears the white garments that characterize the Yom Kippur supplications. The poems written by El’azar Kalir acknowledge that life depends on whether we get enough rain.

The rain prayers go back to the time of the Mishnah. Rabbi Abbahu actually says in the Talmud, “Rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, since that is only for the righteous whilst rain is for everybody” (Ta’anit 7a). Another rabbi says in the Midrash, “Rain is greater than the Revelation, since that day brought joy to Israel, whilst rain brings joy to all humanity” (Midrash Tehillim 117:1).

Old-time siddurim recognized that sometimes there is too much rain and sometimes too little, and they have a special prayer for each possibility. The lesson we learn is that the best blessings are those when we have just enough, not too much or too little.

Why the emphasis on Israel in the prayer for rain? Because when Israel is blessed, so is the whole world.

The verbissener nations that traduce Israel should stop and think once in a while about how much benefit the entire human race has received from the land and people of Israel – and from Israel’s God too.

MEMORIAL PRAYERS ON THE 8TH DAY

The Sh’mini Atzeret liturgy includes Yizkor, the memorial prayers. Many Holocaust survivors used to appear in the synagogue in time for Yizkor and then just as suddenly vanish until next time. The influx was noticeable and predictable, and I could never bring myself to denigrate it.

A large number of those who came and went, had their faith in God knocked out of them. They didn’t want to know about prayers and synagogues any more. What they came to the synagogue to do at Yizkor time was to ritualise the pain by giving it a day and a moment.

It was also a tribute to the religious Jews who had been martyred – and to the religious communities, institutions, books and practices which the Nazis, cursed be their memory, had targeted for destruction.

How to approach the Yizkor moment was taught to me by a dear colleague in Sydney, who served the same synagogue as I and lived in the flat upstairs from ours. On Shabbat we would walk home together through Kings Cross, where a corner shop was doing a brisk trade in cooked (t’refah) chickens.

My colleague told me, “You see the owner of that shop? Before the Sho’ah he was a talmud chacham and even now when he goes home on a Saturday afternoon he smokes a cigar and studies G’mara.”

“So what happened to him? The shop open on Shabbat? The non-kosher food?” I asked.

“You forget,” said my colleague, “he went through the Holocaust”…

The evanescent crowds don’t come to the synagogues for Yizkor any more: is it the passing of time (and of the survivors)? The passing of the rebellion? Who knows?

Z’VULUN & YISSACHAR

Div’rei Torah on the weekly reading usually skip the final section of the Torah, “V’Zot HaB’rachah”, presumably because it is read on Simchat Torah and doesn’t have a Shabbat to itself. A pity, since there is so much to think and speak about in this section.

As an example, there is the verse in Moses’s blessing (Deut.33:18), “Rejoice, Z’vulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents”. Mentioning these two tribes together echoes their long-established association that has its beginning in the patriarch Jacob’s blessing of his sons (Gen. 49:13-14).

The sages explain that the two brothers, Z’vulun and Yissachar, and the tribes named after them, had a mutually beneficial partnership: Z’vulun were seafarers who went out to make a living, supporting Yissachar who were scholars who stayed home to study. Yissachar in turn brought spiritual benefit to Z’vulun. In that sense Z’vulun were known for their “going out” for business, and Yissachar for their life in the tents of Torah.

(It is said that there was a similar partnership between Moses Maimonides and his brother, which worked well until the trading brother lost his life at an early age.)

This is how many of the commentators take the verse from V’Zot HaB’rachah. However, the Targum Onkelos follows a line of rabbinic commentary that considers that Z’vulun’s going out is for the purpose of war against an enemy: the notion of “going out” at the beginning of Parashat Ki Tetzei is “going out to war”.

Onkelos also says that Yissachar’s expertise is “to set the time of the festivals in Jerusalem”. The responsibility for making calendrical decisions in those days, long before the scientific calculation of the calendar, required Torah knowledge acquired whilst sitting in the tents of study, and the tribe of Yissachar are already acclaimed in the Bible as experts in this field (I Chron. 12:32).

In a broader sense, Yissachar’s studies equipped them with the wisdom and vision to assess the events of the times: the verse in I Chronicles calls them “people who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”. In that sense Yissachar’s strength was in policy and Z’vulun’s in tactics.

INVITED TO THE MOUNTAIN

Speaking of Z’vulun and Yissachar, Moses says, “They invite the nations to the mountain, where they offer sacrifices…” (Deut. 33:19).

“The nations” could denote the other Israelite tribes; it could also denote the surrounding peoples. In either case it seems likely that this is a prophecy of the end of days when, as the great Isaiah put it, “Many peoples shall go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the House of the Lord” (Isa. 2:3-4).

Why is it precisely the two tribes of Z’vulun and Yissachar who have the privilege of calling the nations to worship on God’s holy mountain?

Perhaps to show that thanksgiving offerings in the sanctuary are especially appropriate for people who have earned success – either in a material or a spiritual/intellectual sense.

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