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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret

Show me the path of life

Despite the apparent disparities between the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the one hand and the Sukkot festival - known as “the time of our joy” - on the other, the holidays of Tishrei in fact live quite at peace with one another.
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1. The Month of the Mighty
2. Two Seals - In Heart and In Practice
3. Tishrei's Path to Perfection
4. "Show me the path of life"
5. The Messiah and the Evil Inclination
6. The Evil Inclination's Good Side

The Month of the Mighty
The month of Elul is referred to as "the Month of the Mighty" ("Yerach Eitanim"; see First Kings 8:2), and the sages explain that this is because it is "fortified with commandments" because of the many holidays that it contains. And despite the apparent disparities between the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the one hand and the Sukkot holiday, known as "the time of our joy," on the other, these occasions in fact live at peace with one another. The High Holidays are characterized by repentance out of fear, and Sukkot is characterized by repentance out of love. Together they are juxtaposed in a manner which leads man to spiritual perfection.

Two Seals - In Heart and In Practice
The Rebbe of Slonim, author of "Beit Avraham," finds an indication of this in the verse, "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as Sheol; its coals are coals of fire, which has a most vehement flame" (Song of Songs 8:6). Two seals are mentioned in this verse and they hint at the two seals which are signed on Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabba.

On Yom Kippur we are sealed for life primarily in terms of the service of the heart, for Yom Kippur constitutes the end of the Ten Days of Repentance regarding which Scripture teaches us to "seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon him while He is near" (Isaiah 55:6). The same chapter tells us that "the wicked must abandon his path; a man of dishonesty, his thoughts," and this implies that during these days, man is called upon to repent in his heart and to choose a path of life which contains a mighty faith in God. Man must furthermore abandon the dishonest thoughts which come from corrupt character traits. When a person earnestly takes all of this upon himself, in the sense of "Set me as a seal upon your heart," he signs and is sealed for life because of it.

On Hoshana Rabba we are sealed for life primarily in terms of the observance of Torah commandments, for the Sukkot festival is overflowing with commandments, and when a Jew fulfills them impeccably and with a joyful heart, this is "as a seal upon your arm," and so he signs and is sealed for life because of it.

And, in truth, both of these seals are necessary. The seal for the heart is needed so that we not fulfill the commandments out of mere habit. On the other hand, we should not to be satisfied with the service of the heart alone; we must apply this service to the world of actual human endeavor. Ramban gives voice to this approach in his comment to the verse (Song of Songs 8:4), "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up, nor awake my love, until it please." Ramban interprets the words "until it please ('techpatz')" to mean until the love leaves the realm of the abstract to become like an actual object ("chefetz," from the same root as "techpatz"), for, if not, it will not subsist.

According to this approach we can interpret the continuation of the verse, "for love is strong as death," as applying to the Shmini Atzeret festival whereupon we rejoice in the joy of the Torah, an abounding joy which reveals the magnitude of our love for the Torah. This can be seen in the next verse (Song of Songs 8:7), which tells us that "many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it; if a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned."

Tishrei's Path to Perfection
We must examine more closely the order of the holidays in the month of Tishrei and try to grasp how they lead us to spiritual perfection. In Psalms 16:11 it is written: "Show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures for evermore." The sages of the Midrash interpret this as referring to the holidays of Tishrei: "'the path of life' - these are the Ten Days of Repentance; 'in your presence is fullness of joy' - do not read it "fullness" ("sova") but "seven" ("sheva"); these are the seven commandments that apply to Sukkot: the four species, the sukkah, the festival offering, and the duty of rejoicing" (Yalkut Shimoni 247:670).

According to this, "Show me the path of life" refers to Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the intervening Ten Days of Repentance. During this period a person learns to direct his paths so that they become "the path of life." "In your presence is fullness of joy" refers to Sukkot wherein we joyfully fulfill the holiday's seven commandments.

In light of this it is fitting to interpret the continuation of the verse, "at your right hand there are pleasures for evermore" as referring to the following holiday, Shmini Atzeret, for on Shmini Atzeret we rejoice with the Torah, regarding which it is written, "From His right hand went a fiery law for them" (Deuteronomy 33:2). And the same Midrash thus says:

"Fulness of (sova) joy" refers to Torah, Prophets, Scripture, Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, and Haggadoth. Another exposition is that these are the seven (sheva) companies of righteous men who will in the future welcome the Divine Presence. And who is it that is superior and desirable? He who stands at the right hand of the Almighty, as it is written, "At Your right hand there are pleasures for evermore." Two talmudic sages [explain this]. One says: this refers to that which comes from the power of the Torah, as it says, "From His right hand went a fiery law for them"; another says: this refers to the teachers of Scripture and of Mishnah and of infants, who teach conscientiously, for they are destined to sit in the shade of the Almighty . . .

"Show me the path of life"
According to what we have noted above, that the holidays of Tishrei are like a single unit, it is possible to discern, already at the beginning of David's request, "Show me the path of life," the foundation to all of the holidays in the month. The sages hint at this in the following Midrash (ibid.):

"Show me the path of life" - Rabbi Yudan says: David said before the Almighty, "Show me the path of life!" The Almighty replied, "David, is it life you desire? Then seek out fear, for it is written, 'Fear of God adds days.'"
Rabbi Zeirah says: David said before the Almighty, "Show me the path of life!" The Almighty replied, "David, is it life you desire? Then seek out suffering, for 'reproofs of instruction are the way of life.'"
Rav says: David said before the Almighty, "Show me the path of life!" The Almighty replied, "David, is it life you desire? Then seek out the Torah, as it is written, 'It is a tree of life for those who cling to it.'"
Another exposition is that the Almighty said, "Is it life you desire? Perform and eat, for it says, 'Keep my commandments and live.'"

David requests that God grant him life and we find four responses to this request in the Midrash: a) "seek out fear," b) "seek out suffering" c) "seek out the Torah," d) "keep My commandments."

It would appear that these four matters correspond to the holidays of the month. "Seek out fear" alludes to Rosh Hashana, the time when we accept upon ourselves God's kingship, especially to fear Him as a king. "Seek out suffering" alludes to Yom Kippur, when we receive ethical reproofs, in confession and in repentance. It also contains actual suffering through self-affliction.

(The last two are in reverse order:) "Perform and eat, 'Keep my commandments and live'" alludes to the Sukkot festival in which we perform many commandments. Explicit mention is made of performing and eating, and this alludes to the commandment of eating in the sukkah. "Seek out the Torah" alludes to Shmini Atzeret which coincides with Simchat Torah. We find, then, that by following the order of all these approaches, it is possible to merit life.

Regarding the last two answers, commandments and Torah, it is possible to sense how they actually add life. Rejoicing in the commandments and in the Torah - this is spiritual joy which can vitalize the physical body as well. Therefore, the performance of commandments is called "perform and eat." However, regarding the first two answers, fear and suffering, it is difficult to actually feel how these matters add life. To the contrary, fear restricts and paralyzes the feeling of life, how much more so suffering, even though we believe that in the future it will bring life.

The Messiah and the Evil Inclination
And it would appear that we can understand this better by analyzing the personality of King David who we have found always requesting life. The Talmud teaches (Sukkah 52a):

The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), "Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee," as it is said, "I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance." But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, "Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life." "As to life," He would answer him, "Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you," as it is said, "He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever]."

In the same location, the death of Messiah the son of Joseph is dealt with:
"And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart." Is it not, they said, an a fortiori argument? If in the future when they will be engaged in mourning and the Evil Inclination will have no power over them, the Torah nevertheless says, men separately and women separately, how much more so now when they are engaged in rejoicing and the Evil Inclination has sway over them.

What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]? - R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, that the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.

It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, "And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son"; but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?

[The explanation is] as R. Judah expounded: In the time to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread.

Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, "How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!" The wicked also will weep saying, "How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!" And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts: if it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvelous in My eyes."

What is the meaning of the discrepancy in the Talmud over whether Messiah the son of Joseph will be killed or the Evil Inclination will be killed?

It seems possible to answer this question by explaining that each is dependent upon the other. After all, the entire purpose of Joseph the righteous is to face the Evil Inclination and defeat it, and - it follows - to wage war upon the seed of Esau, as the sages say, "Esau only falls by the hands of Rachel's children." This struggle is very intense, to the point where the life of Messiah the son of Joseph is endangered.

Yet, if he defeats the Evil Inclination to the point where he kills it, his life will have lost meaning, for he derives life entirely from this confrontation. This is why he is called "Joseph the righteous." Were the Evil Inclination not to exist, how would he justify himself? Therefore, the Talmud tells us that after the Evil Inclination is killed, "the land shall mourn, every family apart," because now they will not have the opportunity to overcome it. We find, then, that even if Messiah the son of Joseph defeats the Evil Inclination, it is as if he dies together with it. And if this is the case, he has no life.

In addition, the Talmud teaches that the sages requested to nullify the sex impulse, however, they were informed from heaven that if this impulse were to be done away with not even a single chicken egg would be born. This being the case, we find that life without such an inclination is an impossibility.

We can also understand why, having seen Messiah the son of Joseph die, Messiah the son of David requested life. When the Almighty said, "Ask of me, and I shall give you the nations for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession," he knew that this would demand of him to cope with wars that would not leave him life. Therefore, he requested nothing more than life.

The Evil Inclination's Good Side
"He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him" - How is this? We might explain that from the very fact that David is aware that he has no life of his own and that his life is a gift from heaven, it follows that this includes everything - the Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination alike. Everything which God has created, He has created for the sake of heaven - "I have created for My glory" (Isaiah 43:7), and it is possible to worship God through both inclinations.

We must admit that the Evil Inclination also has a positive role, to uplift man and thus allow him to achieve rectification. Therefore, once David becomes aware of the fact that the Almighty gives him life, his confrontation with the world takes a new shape. Kingship and all worldly matters serve sanctity; indeed, God says to him, "Ask of me, and I shall give you the nations for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession."

This conceptual development finds expression in the holidays of Tishrei. First David is told that if he wants life he must "seek out fear" on Rosh Hashana. Then he must "seek out suffering" on Yom Kippur to the point of abstention from food and drink, a situation in which we become like angels, rejecting worldly matters completely (and this befits Joseph the righteous, for the sages teach that Joseph was freed from prison on Rosh Hashana).

However, this situation cannot persist, and the request for life is awakened with even more intensity. Therefore, this is followed by the stage of the Sukkot festival in which we bring all of the matters of this world into sanctity. We eat, drink, and sleep in the sukkah, "perform and eat," (and this reflects David, for the sukkah is called "David's Sukkah").

However, neither is this situation the height of perfection, for it calls for leaving our homes and entering a temporary home. Then comes Shmini Atzeret wherein we move on to rejoicing within our own homes, to living at peace with all aspects of this world. This is reflected in Targum Yonatan's rendering of the words "On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly" (Numbers 29:35) - go from your sukkah into house joyfully.
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Biblical verses and Midrashic sources in the above article were taken from or based upon the Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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