The Gemara in Rosh HaShana identifies the festival of Shmini Atzeres as a separate festival in its own right to Sukkos.

Why then, do we refer to the three festivals, when there are in fact four? The other festivals also have clearly stated reasons, commemorating specific events. What is Shmini Atzeres? What is the function of atzeres a chag?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that there are several unique aspects to the day. The Gemara in Sukka teaches that after the 7 day festival of Sukkos, Hashem says “stay a little longer so that I can enjoy your company some more”. In Kabbala, it is identified as the day where the final judgement is delivered and carried out. We also make it the day where we complete and restart the Torah cycle and dance and rejoice.

Why do these events happen on Shmini Atzeres particularly, marking it as different from other festivals, deserving its own category?

The answer can be found in exploring what the significance of the number 8 is. The Maharal explains that the number seven includes everything cyclical, physical and natural. There were 7 days of creation, corresponding to all of the nature contained within. The number 8 supersedes what comes before, 7, and refers to the metaphysical and spiritual, anything supernatural. It is a state above nature.

Anywhere the number 8 is mentioned it refers to a supernatural event. The Mishkan entered regular use on its’ 8th day, which the Gemora in Shabbos discusses as being a day where the prescience of God was so palpable that the whole area shone. Circumcision is done on the 8th day after a child is born. He becomes a fully fledged Jew.

So Shmini Atzeres isn’t like the other 3 festivals. It’s a day of supernatural exposure to God that it can’t be categorised together with the other festivals – all of which are 7 days or less, indicating their operation within nature. It is a day where we mark the completion of God’s gift to us, the Torah.

The other festivals celebrate a particular event in history, such as leaving Egypt. But Shmini Atzeres is a day of such joy that the Sages compared it to the happiness one experiences on their wedding day. All the festivals are a build up to the culmination that is Shmini Atzeres.

Starting at Selichos, the prayers of Ellul, we open the Ark for prayer. On Rosh HaShana this develops into opening the Ark many times, and on Yom Kippur, this develops further at to taking several Torah scrolls out and parading them, and the concluding service has the Ark kept open the entire time. On Hoshana Rabba we take out all the scrolls and stand at the front.

But then comes the crowning moment: Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. We all dance with the Torah. It’s a day of such ecstasy and celebration that it is supernatural and thus categorised by the number 8, hence it’s name. It is truly in a category of its own, completely separate to the other festivals.

The Midrash teaches that the idea of Teshuva predates the universe, and that Teshuva does not wipe the slate entirely clean, but a small root of the transgression remain with the individual.

Teshuva is the flipside of the same coin as being tested. Hashem wants us to pass tests, but tests can be failed. In that case, there is Teshuva. Genuine Teshuva enables someone to learn from their mistakes, and move on.

When learning to ride a bicycle and you lose your balance; you fall and hurt yourself. You need to learn how to keep your balance – focussing on the fall doesn’t teach anything. After hard work, you learn to keep your balance, and you now know how to ride a bicycle.

This is why Teshuva cannot mean wiping the slate clean – a fresh start necessarily means no history, and therefore nothing learned from mistakes made. This is also why Teshuva predates the creation of the universe; Hashem did not create a static world, He created a world that is meant to grow. Teshuva enables people to move on from their mistakes.

When a person does Teshuva, their sins and transgressions can be measured differently based on their motivation. If motivated by fear, they are downgraded to accidents and oversights; if motivated by love, they become merits. This should seem perplexing, but should now be perfectly logical – a person adapts their past mistakes and uses them to become a better person.

This explains why a year is called שנה – similar to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” subjectively. These are not mutually exclusive terms. It is from the past, the foundations one lays, that anything later comes. A fresh start wouldn’t be secondary, and nor would a repetition. It only through change, growth, that one can move on. This is ראש השנה – and also why we temporarily act more stringently during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. From reliable foundations comes a strong building.

Perhaps this is why we read about the Akeida on Rosh Hashana. Without any of this information, it is obviously a monumentally important story, a watershed moment in Jewish history. It cemented Avraham into Avraham Avinu. But perhaps there is something more.

The story is not one where he willingly goes along with Hashem’s instruction; he begrudgingly conceded to Hashem. His life was predicated in kindness and being good; this is why Hashem displayed an interest in him. Yet here he was was, being asked to commit the ultimate of selfishness and cruelty, stifling out someone else’s very existence. It simply made no sense, and he struggled to come to terms with what he was told to do.

The Nesivos Shalom points out that Torah subtly references the turmoil he faced. We are told that as Avraham approached the area, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw הַמָּקוֹם from a distance. (22:4)

Classically, this means that he literally “saw the place”. But הַמָּקוֹם is also a name of Hashem – He is “The Place”, He is everywhere, the Omnipresent. As we say on Pesach; ברוך המקום ברוך הוא.

In this context, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק means that Avraham evaluated the situation, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem. It tore him apart – he’d spent his whole life fighting idol worship and sacrifice, and yet here he was, about to sacrifice his son, throwing away his entire future, and Hashem had not even demanded it. וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham looked around, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem.

When it comes to follow through, we are told how וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת – Avraham sent his hand, and picked up the knife.
The Torah disembodied the action from the actor – his hand was not doing what he wanted it to – he didn’t want to do it at all!

And in the end, he was vindicated. He was right the whole time! Every fibre of his being told him what he was doing was wrong, and he was proven right.

This is the comparison to Teshuva; the vindication of a struggle. It’s hard, and we don’t understand everything, but at the end of the tunnel, it all fits into place.

Yakov had a difficult life. He had fled his childhood home to live in hiding from his brother; he’d been cheated and overworked by his father in law; he’d been denied marriage to the love of his youth; he’d been betrayed by his firstborn son; he’d seen the rape of his daughter; he’d seen his children fight; he’d lost a son, missing and presumed death for 22 years; he’d seen his great love Rachel die in childbirth. This was not the future he had sought for his family.

When Yakov meets Paroh for the first time, he comments on how old Yakov appears, and Yakov laments his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב: כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה: מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Paroh said to Yakov, “How many have been the days, the years of your life?” Yakov said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my journies are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers, in the days of their journeys.” (47:8-9)

A good life is one of peace, understanding, and love. With such misfortune, he was understandably bitter. Yet once his family resettled in Egypt, his perspective changed:

וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי יְמֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה – Yakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and Yakov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years. (47:28)

Just 17 years after Yakov bemoaned his miserable life, Yakov had lived life to it’s fullest – וַיְחִי.

How did he re-frame his outlook?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that to tolerate suffering, it needs to be worth it. Yakov going to Egypt was the beginning of a dark period in the nascent Jewish people’s history, and he believed that he had failed. But reunited with his family, in harmony, he could look back and see that there had been a point, and it was worth it.

The butterfly effect describes the concept that small causes can have large effects. Every wrong turn down the broken road still led them to this point.

The maturity and introspection it took to recognise this could only happen once Yakov attained some form of peace. It gave value to everything he had been through, and he could finally be content and fulfilled.

The hand that writes history sometimes holds our hands too; if we only looked closer.

Avraham’s ultimate test of faith was Akeidas Yitzchak. The way we teach children, the challenge was to overcome his attachment to his son, even though this very same son was supposed to be heir to the covenant.

The Ran explains that there is a major subtlety into what was asked of Avraham. Hashem says: קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go, for yourself, to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him, as a burnt offering. (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem said קַח-נָא – “please take”. This was a request. It was not an instruction. It is quite possible that if Avraham had refused, he would not have violated Hashem word, as Hashem did not require it, and Avraham did not “need” to go through with it. It remained Avraham’s choice.

The Slonimer Rebbe adds a further dimension to the turmoil he faced. As Avraham approached the mountain:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw הַמָּקוֹם from a distance. (22:4)

Classically, this means that he literally “saw the place”. But הַמָּקוֹם is also a name of Hashem – He is “The Place”, He is everywhere, the Omnipresent.

In this context, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק means that Avraham looked at the situation he was in, what he was about to do, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem. Avraham was doing what Hashem had requested, but he knew that what he was doing did not feel right. It tore him apart – he’d spent his entire life up to that point fighting human sacrifice, and yet here he was, about to sacrifice his son, throwing away his entire future. וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham felt a distance between himself and Hashem.

At the crescendo, the Torah records that וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ – Avraham sent his hand, and picked up the blade, to slaughter his son. The Torah doesn’t say that “He picked up the knife,”; but that he “sent his hand”. There is a disembodiment, dissociating his hands action from him. He could not believe what he was forcing himself to do!

We read this on Rosh Hashana, and apart from the obvious merit the story recalls, perhaps we can relate to this on a personal level. Things aren’t always clear cut what the right thing to do is. We don’t always “feel it”. Even the greatest of us was torn once.

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham is the immense challenge to abandon all he grew up with:

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the house of your father, to the land which I will show you”. (12:1)

The sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only then the country. Why does the story focuses on where is to leave, rather than where he is to go, and in a strange order? The Nesivos Shalom explains that Hashem’s actual command to Avraham was that he discard the negative characteristics endemic to these places. Our environment is instrumental to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have.

The Nesivos Shalom explains that the essence of the command was to discard the negative influences he was exposed to in these environments. He was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision.

The circles of our environments are central to our development. The closer the circle, the greater the effect of exposure.

The home environment is more influential than a neighbourhood, which itself is more influential than a country. The easiest to discard is the place. It’s harder to transcend where you come from. And it’s hardest to forget what you learnt from home.

The Sfas Emes explains that a mark of great people is to actively seek challenges and opportunities that test their qualities. Avram was the first person to intuitively understand the vision of moral consciousness humanity could exhibit. But he’d have to show it, and that couldn’t happen in the stagnant place he grew up.

Who and what we surround ourselves with have a key influence on our development. We need to actively make sure that they are good influences.

Throughout the sections detailing the construction and establishment of the Mishkan, the Torah repeatedly uses the phrase “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” or variants. It would seem obvious that the construction of the Mishkan would take place as instructed – it’s not as though competing architects and interior designers had to pitch different ideas and blueprints. Why emphasise that they did what they were supposed to?

There is a prevalent view that holds that the Mishkan was only required to fix the problems created at the Golden Calf. The Beis Halevi explains that what caused the sin was the people’s own ideas about how best to serve Hashem, and this led them to the conclusion that they drew about how to serve God. By accepting God’s total authority, and marginalizing their own beliefs in order to complete the Mishkan, the Torah sees fit to emphasise “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” – that was the actual point of getting them to build it.

The Ohr HaChayim elaborates that there were three components in forming the Golden Calf which required rectification – the idea of not believing in God or Moshe wholeheartedly; the speech to Ahron to find alternative forms of spirituality; and the donation and subsequent casting of material into the form it took. But when describing the Mishkan’s construction, the Torah merely states that they did as commanded – along with other such verbs referring to action. Where are the reparations for thought and speech reflected?

The chief architect and foreman of the Mishkan was Bezalel – to whom Chazal ascribe the ability to see the components of all things to the smallest possible detail. He truly understood the plans of the Mishkan, and they made sense to him. But he did not perform the tasks because he understood them. He did it because Hashem told Moshe. This counteracted their heretical intentions and thoughts.

The significance of Parshas Shekalim is that every individual had to make a personal contribution to the Mishkan fund. In so doing, they bought a stake in the project, undoing their donations and pressure to form the Golden Calf.

To initiate the actual construction, Moshe was not simply told to have the Mishkan built:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. בְּיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ תָּקִים אֶת מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – Hashem said to Moshe, to say: “On the day of the first month, on the first of the month, you shall set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting…” (40:1-2)

Moshe had to explicitly say to them to to build it. They had to be told precisely what to do! This counteracted their clamouring for alternative forms of spirituality.

After the Golden Calf, Moshe gathers the people for a discourse:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם’ – Moses gathered the whole community of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (35:1)

He tells them certain laws of Shabbos, and collection for and initiation of construction of the Mishkan.

This occurred the morning after the Yom Kippur Moshe returned with the second Luchos. It seems likely that his first public appearance upon his return would include a notable message regarding their conduct. Yet he gathered them together to discuss Shabbos and the Mishkan. The Nesivos Shalom notes out how usually, an act, speech or instruction initiate an episode; this is the sole instance where וַיַּקְהֵל , getting people together, starts a story.

The Noam Elimelech explains that mitzvos were given to the nation, not individuals. This means that when a person sins, it is an act of rebellion, splintering from the nation, albeit momentarily. Redemption and forgiveness is attained by blending back into the nation. In the same way a harmony is a beautiful sound where no single voice is discernible, a tzibbur, the collective, is safe because an individual does not stand out.

Moshe defended the Jews to God, and argued that the Golden Calf was the act of rogue individuals, not the nation. Sin is an individual act – how could the nation be held accountable, regardless of how many had indeed sinned?

On his return, he saw to it that what he said was indeed true. The nation was whole and not fractured – he united them – וַיַּקְהֵל. This makes וַיַּקְהֵל unique as an opening.

The Nesivos Shalom proves this from what Moshe told them. He said of the laws that לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – but the instructions for Shabbos that he mentions are to not light fire, and to not work. How is not doing something called לַעֲשֹׂת – to do?

Perhaps the instruction wasn’t discussing Shabbos at all; having conceded to Moshe’s argument, he received the instruction לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – to make them, the Jews, into a united nation once again – וַיַּקְהֵל. Moshe was told to back up his claim!

This concept recurs over and over. When the spies were sent, the nation could not be absolved. They were sent in the capacity of the people’s representatives, and the generation died out. The Purim rescue occurred once the divided nation fought stood as one לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל-נַפְשָׁם. Korach’s error was not believing that the nation was more potent than the individual, claiming כולם קדושים.

Not to say that the laws Moshe spoke about were incidental to the purpose of gathering them. Far from it. They were chosen as both are incumbent on the nation, serving the same function, in contrast to more personal mitzvos,

The Midrash says that Hashem said to Shabbos that כנסת ישראל is its pre-ordained. כנסת ישראל is the Jewish national identity and consciousness, the supersoul of the nation. Shabbos observance is not down to the individual alone – it requires everyone’s input. Shabbos intrinsically unites Jews.

The Mishkan was selected for the discourse for the same reason. Everyone was required to make donation, buying a small stake in it. Covering the project costs with a few individual sponsors would not have served it’s purpose.

Both demonstrate the potency of a group over an individual. The parts in a machine are unremarkable – but together they achieve complex and sophisticated goals. Note how many mitzvos require groups to be adequately performed. The Nesivos Shalom says that we refer to Hashem as אבינו – our father – conceptually, obviously. If we identify with the nation, we can say אבינו.

We say in the Amida every day: ברכנו אבינו כולנו כאחד באור פניך – when everyone gets along, we can proudly say אבינו.