Let us work with the Sfas Emes's very first ma'amar in the section
entitled "Lesukkos" ("For Sukkos"). This ma'amar has much to teach us,
both about Sukkos and about Shemini Atzeres.
The Sfas Emes begins by telling us that the eight days of Sukkos give the
world its life for the entire year. That is, on Rosh Hashana, HaShem
decides the measure of chiyus (vibrancy, vitality) for the world in the
year to come. But it is on Sukkos that the chiyus actually flows out to
give life to all creation. The Torah provides a unique mitzva to help us
see this feature of reality. That mitzva is " nisuch hamayim", the
ceremonial offering of waters poured over the mizbei'ach (altar), on
Sukkos (and only on Sukkos).
The chiyus that flows to the world on Sukkos is a life-force for olam
hazeh (literally, "this world"). But the Sfas Emes is probably using the
term to refer to physical/material existence in general). Obviously, non-
Jews also participate in olam hazeh. For this reason, the fact that
Sukkos is the time when chiyus flows out to the physical/material world
has an important implication . It implies that non-Jews, too, have access
to this life-force. The Torah provides a metaphor to express the
connection linking the nations of the world to HaShem on Sukkos. That
metaphor is the korban (sacrificial offering) of 70 bulls that we bring
over the course of Sukkos. The format of this korban reflects the notion
that 70 nations comprise all humankind. Thus, as we see, the Torah
provides a place for all nations to participate in the celebration of
By contrast, the chiyus that flows out to the world on Shemini Atzeres is
for the life of olam habba (literally, the "world to come," but again,
probably intended by the Sfas Emes to refer more generally to the life of
ruchniyus). That life is uniquely for Bnei Yisroel. Why? Because this
chiyus hapenimiyus (inner life-force) is expressed through Torah. And if
we try, we can make Torah the central feature of our lives.
But there is a major problem. In olam hazeh, we can perceive only the
world's external appearance. Thus we see nature, but not HaShem, Who is
behind nature. Because our perception of the world is misleading, we are
at risk. Fortunately, the Sfas Emes tells us, we have available
protection in our exposed, dangerous situation. The mitzva of sukka can
provide the protection we need in order to live our lives with an accurate
picture of reality.
How can a sukka provide that protection? The sukka is HaShem's testimony
that even in this physical/material world, the central feature of our life
is Torah. How does that work? To address that critical question, the
Sfas Emes cites the term that the Zohar uses to refer to the sukka. This
term is crucial for our understanding of the mitzva and by extension, the
yom tov of Sukkos. The term that the Zohar uses for the sukka is: "tzila
Let us see what these words mean and what they tell us. "Tzila"
is "shade" -- the sekhach which shields us from the sun's blazing
heat. "Di'meheimenusa" means "of emuna." I translate "emuna"
as "affirmation". That is, by dwelling in the sukka, we affirm HaShem's
Omnipresence, shielding us from harm.
Summing up, the Sfas Emes has told us that Sukkos is oriented to the
physical/material world, a world to which non-Jews also have access. A key
feature of that world is the misleading impression it conveys of reality.
Hence, on Sukkos we need protection, as provided by our dwelling in the
sukka. By contrast, Shemini Atzeres is purely Torah and ruchniyus.
Consequently, on Shemini Atzeres, there is no need for the protection
afforded by a sukka. For, being pure ruchniyus, Shemini Atzeres is, in
effect, its own sukka. I suggest that you pause and take a deep breath
before proceeding. Why? Because what comes next shows the Sfas Emes in a
unique, breath-taking light. Remember: the Sfas Emes was both the Gerer
Rebbe and a Gaon Olam in Torah Learning. Similarly, he was both the Sfas
Emes on Shas and the Sfas Emes on the Torah.
Return now to what was said earlier, that being pure ruchniyus, Shemini
Atzeres does not need the protection of a sukka. For, being pure
ruchniyus Shemini Atzeres is, in effect, its own Sukka. Now the Sfas Emes
continues: "Perhaps this is what Chazal had in mind when they said (Sukka,
47,a) that on Shemini Atzeres, we dwell in the sukka -- even though, in
fact, we do not."