I have always felt bad for Parshat V’zot Habracha. It is the only parsha that is not read on a Shabbos, unless, of course, Simchat Torah coincides with Shabbos. Why? Why this irregularity? Indeed, the whole procedure for Torah reading on Simchat Torah is most irregular and disconcerting. It is unlike anything done at any other time of the year. It is not simply how we read, with everyone getting an aliyah, but it is also what we read.
V’zot Habracha should be the next parsha in the regularly set sequence of Shabbos Torah readings. Instead we read it on Simchat Torah. Upon finishing it we read from Bereishit. Even this reading is different. Unlike the reading that would occur at Shabbos Mincha, or Monday and Thursday, we do not restrict our reading to the first three days of creation. Nor do we read only one day for each person called up to the Torah. Instead, we read the entire seven days of creation saga through Shabbos. After this reading we read a maftir listing the korbanot for Shemini Atzeret followed by a haftarah that fails to follow the theme or subject of the maftir but coming instead from Yehoshua (1:1-18).
Why are these the readings for Simchat Torah? For that matter, why was it arranged that we conclude the parshiot on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, known as Simchat Torah? The rabbis could have arranged the Torah readings so they conclude at another point in time. Why not conclude the reading on Rosh Hashanah, or the first day of Sukkot? What is the significance of Shemini Atzeret?
Often it is asked why does Shavuot, the time of the giving of our Torah, lack the particularly joyous celebrations characteristic of Simchat Torah? Why do we celebrate the Torah four and a half months later on Simchat Torah? The generally accepted answer is that the Children of Israel could not celebrate the Torah when they received it on Shavuot because they did not know its contents. The Children of Israel needed time to pour over the Torah, to study it, before they could truly celebrate. The oft-cited parable illustrating this situation is of an arranged marriage involving a couple who do not meet until the wedding day. There may be some joy on the wedding day, but only after bride and groom get to know one another can there be true joy. It is a fine explanation. Yet it fails to address the question of why do we hold the celebrations on Shemini Atzeret. Indeed, if we are not going to celebrate the Torah on Shavuot, Purim seems a better choice than Shemini Atzeret.
The Gemara in Shabbos 88a teaches, based on Esther 9:27, that after being saved from Haman’s plot, the Jews accepted upon themselves the entire Torah. It is suggested that at the revelation of Sinai, Hashem was so manifest that it was impossible for the Children of Israel to refuse to accept the Torah. This thought appears in the Midrashim, stating that Hashem held the mountain over the Children of Israel. The idea is that the original acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai entailed an element of coercion. After all, when you truly perceive God, it’s impossible to refuse God. At the time of Esther, however, Hashem was hidden from us. The name Esther even hints at the word “ester,” conceal. (See Devarim 31:12 “הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר”). We all know that Hashem’s name does not appear at all in the Book of Esther. After the events of Purim, the Jews once again, without any possible assertion of duress, accepted to Torah. So Purim then seems a prime candidate for Simchat Torah. Yet, the rabbis chose Shemini Atzeret. Why? The answer may be four days.
The Torah commands that three times a year, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkcot, the entire nation appear before Hashem at the place He will choose. Ultimately, He chose Jerusalem. Most people would make the journey to Jerusalem on foot, perhaps with a pack animal. Horses and carts were luxuries for the extremely wealthy. The roads of the era were mainly dirt. The journey would be slow, not only owing to the roads, but owing to the pace needed for children and the elderly. The tithes being transported to Jerusalem would also inhibit speed. From most points in Israel the journey would take more than four days, hence the problem.
Sukkot starts at sundown on the 14th of Tishrei. Four days earlier, sunset on the 10th of Tishrei, is still Yom Kippur. Unless one was prepared to celebrate Yom Kippur along the road, or in some unfamiliar town or village, the Sukkot journey to Jerusalem could only commence on the morning of the 11th of Tishri. That left four days to get to Jerusalem. Actually, it would have been more like three and a half days, for once in Jerusalem you would need time to establish your lodgings and prepare for the chag. We can therefore surmise that some, if not many, chose to spend Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. The journey could commence after Rosh Hashanah, on the morning of the third of Tishrei, leaving enough time to get to the Temple in time for Yom Kippur. The pilgrims would not only be in Jerusalem in time for Sukkot, but they might even see the kohen gadol after he performed the Yom Kippur service. But what do you do, 2,000 years ago, in Jerusalem during the time before and after Yom Kippur? For that matter, what do you do during Chol Hamoed Sukkot when not observing the Temple ceremonies?
In Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, the “big attractions,” besides the Temple and the king, would have been the Torah academies. No doubt that the men and boys who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem spent much of their free time in those academies. For many, this might have been the only time in the year they could spend an extended period in formal study. Brimming with enthusiasm, they must have returned to the family lodging and excitedly spoken of what they learned that day. On Pesach and Shavuot, after the Yom Tov ended, the pilgrims would have returned home. When the first day of Sukkot ended, most people would have remained through all of Chol Hamoed so they could celebrate Shemini Atzeret in Jerusalem rather than on the road home. Further, once every seven years, on the second day of Sukkot, the king would have performed the mitzvah of Hakhel, reading portions of the Torah to the people. (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)
The period beginning just before Yom Kippur and culminating with Shemini Atzeret would have been the most intense time of Torah study in all the year for the largest number of people. The people who arrived even the day before Yom Kippur would have spent two weeks in Jerusalem, two weeks of studying Torah with the greatest rabbis and teachers of the day. It therefore makes sense that we would years later select this time as the time of celebrating Torah. It taps an ancient memory. But why the unusual Torah and haftarah readings and procedures for Simchat Torah? Of course, it is to teach a lesson.
We break from our normal method of Torah reading and call all to the Torah to shock us out of complacency. We take Torah for granted. During the course of the year we become complacent and slack off in our Torah study. We do not rise to our potential. By calling on a historic event, the intense Torah study that would just have been completed on Shemini Atzeret, we send ourselves a message that we also can engage in great Torah endeavors. We can, as the High Holy Days draw to a close and we begin a new year, break from our past patterns and begin Torah study anew with more intensity. This is why our first reading from Sefer Bereishit extends through the third aliyah for Shabbos Bereishit. We resume, but with more than our normal intensity. This is why the haftarah comes from Sefer Yehoshua. It is not just to further break from our normal pattern. It is to send the message that even if we are not up to the standards of past generations, even as Yehoshua was not Moshe Rabbeinu, we can continue on and do our best to fulfill God’s will.
That is all Hashem asks of us, that we “[o]nly be strong and have courage.” (Yehoshua 1:18). We may not have access to the great Torah academies of Jerusalem of old, but it should not deter us, just as Yehoshua was not deterred. If we make certain that the Torah never leave our mouths, if we study it day and night, to observe to do all that is written in it, then we will “succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper.” (Yehoshua 1:8).
By William S.J. Fraenkel
William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU. He has served for a number of years as the president and board member of the Young Israel of Harrison, New York (YIOH). The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.