(My first attempt at this post was seriously flawed, both typographically and in flow. This is a significant reworking. If you have ideas for further improvement, they’re eagerly invited.)
Why is it that we established the custom to read the Torah once annually from Shemini Atzeres to Shemini Atzeres, thereby turning the second day of Shemini Atzeres (the only day, in Israel) into Simchas Torah? What’s the connection between completing the Torah and Shemini Atzeres in particular?
Second, Rosh haShanah is called “Yom haZikaron“, or “Yom Zikhron Teru’ah” (the Day of Remembrance, or the Day of Remembrance of the Broken Shofar Cry). At of the three berakhos that make up the heart of the Rosh haShanah Mussaf, Zikhronos is the longest. But what do we mean when we praise Hashem for remembering? What does He remember? For that matter, what does “memory” mean when speaking of the One Who created time, rather than a person who lives within its flow?When a person remembers, his brain is reliving now something that happened in the past. For Hashem, though, there is no first-hand experience of time, no “now” and no “past”. What then does Zikhronos mean?
I assume you’re now wondering a third question — what do the previous two questions have to do with each other?
When we look at the Jewish Year, we find the holidays mentioned in the Tanakh are grouped around two seasons: fall and spring. In the fall, we have the Yamim Nora’im, Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres. In the spring: Purim, Pesach and Shavu’os. The gemara compares Purim and the holiday the Torah calls “Yom haKippurim“. It also compares Pesach and Shavuos, learning many laws from one to the other on the basis of a gezeira shava (comparison due to similar terminology) because both are placed on the 15th of the month. And Shavuos is called by our sages “Atzeres“, a parallel to Shemini Atzeres.
Purim commemorates the completion of the process that began on Shavuos. On Shavuos, we accepted the Torah because “He held over them the mountain like a barrel”, Hashem threatening to crush the Jewish people if they would decline. This situation lasted all through the prophetic period, where sin often had supernatural consequences. It’s only after G-d “Hides his ‘Face'” on Purim, acting while hiding through nature, that “qiymu vekiblu haYehudim“, the loyalty to the Torah took on a higher level. (And the centrality of willing acceptance by the Jewish People is also why Purim had to be rabbinic, from us, rather than decreed by Hashem.)
And so, given those pieces of the structure of the year, I would expect reflections of Shemini Atzeres to illuminate our understanding of the Yamim Nora’im, as there should be a connection between them similar to that between Shavu’os and Purim.
On each day of Sukkos there is a different number of bulls offered in the mussaf offering. On the first day, 13 bulls; the second day, 12, and so on until on the 7th day 7 were brought. All together, 70 bulls. The gemara (Sukkah 55b) teaches that these 70 bulls are one each for the 70 nations of the world. The medrash (Yalkut Shim’oni, Bamidbar 684) references Tehillim “Instead of My love — they hated Me.” (109:4) “R’ Yehudah said, ‘How foolish are the nations! They lost something, and they don’t even know what it is they lost! When the Beis haMiqdash stood, the mizbei’ach would bring them forgiveness.” — Through these 70 bulls — “Now – who will bring them forgiveness?”
And then on Shemini Atzeres, one bull. An offering for the Jewish People. “This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who said to his servants:, ‘prepare for me a great banquet.’ On the final day he said to his beloved, ‘prepare for me a small meal so I may enjoy your [company].'” (Sukkah 55a)
The connection between Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah is that expressed in the berakhah said before studying Torah. When the gemara asks what that berakhah should be, Rav Hamnunah’s answer, “asher bakhar banu mikol ha’amim venasan lanu es Toraso… — Who has chosen us from all the nations and given us His Torah… who gives the Torah” is called the elite of the various suggestions.
Shemini Atzeres, the one day at the end of the fall holiday series dedicated to the special relationship between G-d and the Jewish People is therefore also the day of commemorating that He gave us the Torah.” To be “the Chosen People” is to be the “benei beris“, people of the covenant.
And, as I wrote, that implies that we should expect the notion of covenant to be central to the Yamim Nora’im as well.
The Zohar writes, “‘אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם’ (Bereishis 22:11) has a pesiq [a pausal trop mark “׀”] between the two names, whereas ‘מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה’ (Shemos 3:4) has no break.” When Hashem calls Avraham at the Aqeida He uses Avraham’s name twice and there is a mark there telling us there is a pause, in how we read it. When Moshe is called, also with a doubling of his name, as the Burning Bush, there is no pause. What is this distinction the Zohar is drawing our attention to?
Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ru’ach Chaim 1:1) answers this question using a description from the gemara. In Yevamos 49b, the prophecy of most prophets is compared to seeing through a cloudy lens or mirror (aspaqlaria shei’na mei’ra), but Moshe’s prophecy was through a clear lens or mirror (aspaqlaria hame’ira). Even the prophets have a layer of physicality which clouds up their view, which divides our souls into a higher level that is more aware of the Divine and a lower level that lives in a body. For most of us, our consciousness stays with our lower selves. A prophet can sometimes “see” from the perspective of the higher soul above that barrier. But it’s a cloudy vision. Moshe entirely lacked that barrier. He had only one self.
Rav Chaim explains that for all his greatness, Avraham too experienced that split. Therefore Hashem calls two Avraham’s – the one where his awareness resides, and the higher soul in heaven. Moshe’s call lacks that “pesiq”, that pausal line, representing a lack of barrier, a unity of the lower “Moshe” and the upper one.
At the moment a person is first born, he is pretty much all potential. Everything that baby will accomplish in life lies before him. He didn’t yet build that line, that gap between who he is and who Hashem created him capable of becoming.
The contents of birkhas Zikhronos doesn’t describe a memory of the past, it describes remembering for the future. “You remember all the actions of the world… And upon the nations, it is sentenced: which to the sword, and which for peace….” The berakhah continues asking Hashem to remember us the way He remembered Noach, “and also Noach you remembered in love, and You appointed him in a statement of salvation and compassion…” And then citing the pasuq, “And G-d remembered Noach and all the living things and all the animals with him in the ark, and Hashem made a wind pass over the earth, and the water subsided.”
The other nine verse of Zikhronos are also about Hashem remembering his covenants with us. More so, His remembering that which He found in us making us worthy of the covenants. Among them:
“And G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchaq, and with Ya’aqov.”
“And I will remember My covenant of Yaaqov, and also My covenant of Yitzchaq, and also my covenant of Avraham I will remember, and I will remember the land.”
“He gave food to those who are in awe of Him, and He always will remember His covenant.”
“Go our and call in the ears of Jerusalem to say, ‘So says Hashem: I remembered for you the lovingkindnesses of your youth, the love of your wedding, your walking behind Me in the wilderness, in the unfarmed lands.”
“I remembered my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I established with you an eternal covenant.”
And finally, “My dear child Ephraim, isn’t he a delightful child? For often I speak about him, I will remember him still…”
Yahadus has a focus on the notion of beris, of a covenant where two parties join together for their common good. (Unlike a contract, where each is aided in their own good in exchange for helping the other.) Man is redeemed through the covenent, through joining together with other and with G-d to work for a good that is greater than Himself.
Teshuvah on our part is critical. But Hashem controls the situations we face. Whether we live in a world that poses challenges to our efforts or makes them easier.
Just as Shemini Atzeres, the day of celebrating our chosenness as a people, naturally became Simchas Torah, the day we celebrate the covenant, the mission for which we were chosen. Zikhronos is a call to remember the person who entered the beris, the person for whom hopes were so high. But since we are speaking of the Creator, when say the word “Zokheir” we really mean “acting in a manner that, if done by a person, would be interepreted as being driven by memory”. When we ask Hashem to “remember”, we’re asking Him to help us reignite the plans we made together.
Zikhronos is G-d remembering our potential, and from that, His plans for us. As it closes “… Zokheir haberis – Blessed are You .. the Rememberer of [or Who Remembers] the Covenant.” It is our calling out to Hashem to invoke that beris. To remember the “delightful child” He created us as, and to make that potential manifest.
We can use this idea to enhance the notion of teshuvah – which literally translates to “return”. Not only is it a person’s return to Hashem, it’s a person’s reapproachment to the person Hashem created him to be, and the role for which He was created.
This is the “dear child Ephraim” of the berakhah of Zikhronos.