We are nearing the end of Sukkos, with Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah up ahead. Although we think of Shemini Atzeres as part of Sukkos, it’s actually a separate holiday. We are no longer required to sit in the Sukkah or shake the lulav on Shemini Atzeres.
Why not? Why don’t we shake the lulav and sit in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres also?
Let’s first try to understand why we have Shemini Atzeres in the first place. What’s this day all about?
Rashi1 offers a parable: Imagine a father who celebrates with his children for 7 days. On the last day, he lovingly says to his children: “It’s so hard for me to see you go! Please, stay with me just one more day and let’s have a small meal together.“
So too, we celebrate with Hashem for 7 days of Sukkos, and at the end, Hashem asks us to stay with Him for just one more day – Shemini Atzeres – because He loves spending time with us, and it’s hard for Him to see us go.
But if Hashem loves us so much, why does He ask for only a “small” meal? And why don’t we eat it in the Sukkah?
The Sifsei Chaim2 answers that for the first 7 days of Sukkos, we need the lulav as sukkah and tools to help us connect to Hashem. But on Shemini Atzeres, we no longer need these tools to help us connect to Hashem. Instead, we are able to connect to Hashem directly. What does this mean?
Imagine that you are hosting a party for your whole shul, which includes many people whom you are rarely in touch with. You will probably make elaborate plans, prepare a variety of foods, and plan activities to keep people busy. Since so many of your guests are unfamiliar with each other, you need the food and activities to help them connect.
But now let’s say that one Shabbos, you decide to invite a few of your closest friends over for shaleshudes. You’ll prepare nice food to serve them, but you are a lot less focused on the food and presentation. You are much more focused on your friends and excited to see them. Since you already have established a solid relationship with these friends, you don’t need to rely on the food or activities to help you connect. You are just happy to spend time with your close friends.
In the same way, by the end of Sukkos, we are already considered like Hashem’s “close friends.” Hashem doesn’t need us to do any special mitzvos on this holiday; it’s enough that we just spend time with Him and connect with Him directly, like close friends.
But what does it mean to connect to Hashem directly? How are we supposed to connect to Hashem if we don’t have any special mitzvos to do on Shemini Atzeres?
Dveikus Through Torah
The answer is that learning Torah is our best tool for connecting to Hashem directly. How so?
When we connect to Hashem through the mitzvah of sukkah, our initial thought is about the physical world. (“I need to eat and sleep anyway, so I’ll do it in the sukkah.”) We take our regular physical activities, and do them in the sukkah to transform them into mitzvos.
Similarly, the source for shaking the lulav is related to the physical world: As the Sefer HaChinuch explains3, at the end of the harvest season, a farmerfeels happy to see all the crops he has harvested. So Hashem asks the farmer to take his natural happiness and transform it into a mitzvah: Take the 4 species of lulav as reminders of all your crops, and shake them as a mitzvah, to express your gratitude to Hashem for giving you these crops. The farmer is happy anyway from his physical acquisitions, so Hashem gives him the mitzvah of lulav to help him transform that physical happiness into a mitzvah.
By contrast, when we learn Torah, we are connecting to Hashem directly. Our initial thought is our desire to connect to Hashem – not about physicality.
We spent Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur fanning the flames of our desire to fulfill Hashem’s will. We said: “Hashem, I accept You as my King, and I want to do Your will! Please help me change my habits so that I can do mitzvos better and succeed in doing whatever You want me to do.”
But if we want to do Hashem’s Will, then we need to make an effort to understand what He wants! You wouldn’t give your friend a strawberry birthday cake if you know he is allergic to strawberries. So too, if we want to make Hashem happy, we need to find out what He likes and what He dislikes.
How are we supposed to know what Hashem likes and dislikes? Only through learning Torah can we find this out. Learning about the mitzvos and the details of halachos teaches us exactly what Hashem likes – what He wants us to do. Learning about aveiros teaches us about what Hashem dislikes – what He is “allergic” to.
Giving us the Torah was the most powerful way for Hashem to express His love for the Jewish people and His desire to connect with us. That’s what it means when we say in Maariv, “Ahavas Olam Beis Yisrael Amcha Ahavta, Torah U’Mitzvos, Chukim U’Mishpatim Osanu Leemadta – You loved the Jewish people with an eternal love, so You taught us the Torah and mitzvos.”4 Hashem gave us the Torah so that we can learn exactly what He wants.
Every time we learn Torah, we are essentially saying: “Hashem, I want to do Your will and make You happy! Please help me understand the details of what you like (mitzvos) and what You dislike (aveiros).”
We can now understand why we celebrate Simchas Torah together with Shemini Atzeres.
Shemini Atzeres is a day for enjoying our close relationship with Hashem, and connecting to Hashem directly. And the best way to connect to Hashem is through learning Torah! So we celebrate and dance on Simchas Torah to show that we are so happy to have the Torah as our guide, to teach us Hashem’s will.
Teshuva Out of Love
Chazal5 teach us that our judgement for the year is finally sealed on Shemini Atzeres. Hashem waits until now to finalize our judgement because He wants to give us this one last chance to do teshuva. It’s great to do Teshuva M’Yirah – motivated by fear of punishment – but it’s even more powerful to do Teshuva Mei’Ahavah – motivated by love. Chazal teach us that when we do Teshuva from fear, our intentional sins are turned into just accidental sins. But if we do Teshuva from love, then our intentional sins are actually transformed into mitzvos!6
This Simchas Torah, let’s dance with the Torah and show Hashem how happy we are that we have the Torah to teach us His will. In this way, we can come to do Teshuva Mei’Ahavah, motivated by a love of Hashem and desire to come closer to Him.
Sources:  Rashi on Bamidbar 29:35-36, also Sukkah 55b;  Sifsei Chaim Moadim Vol. I. pg. 245;  Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 324;  Sifsei Chaim, ibid. pg. 346;  Zohar Vayechi 220, quoted in Sifsei Chaim ibid. pg. 348;  Yuma 86b
Do something to demonstrate your love, respect, or appreciation for Torah.
- Share a Torah insight or halachah with a friend.
- Before you learn, say, “Thank you Hashem for giving me Your Torah so that I can understand Your Will!”
- When someone is telling you a dvar Torah, give them your full attention.
- Learn new halachos or review halachos you have learned in the past.
- Kiss a sefer that fell to the floor.
- Smile while learning.
- Come a few minutes earlier to seder, or make sure to come on time.
- Learn for 5-10 minutes longer than you normally do.
- Dance with a sefer Torah.
- Sing a song about love of Torah.